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VOL. 117 | NO. 124 | Thursday, June 26, 2003

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TDOT plan would double MATA ridership

TDOT plan would double MATA ridership


The Daily News

Memphis air is not exactly pure the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department can attest to that. Today marks one more day in a string of summer days the department has placed the area under Code Orange status because of its forecasted high ozone levels.

And, if the Tennessee Department of Transportations projections for a population increase in the state are correct, air quality concerns will have to be addressed or ozone levels will remain high, TDOT officials said.

For that reason, TDOT has hosted a series of regional meetings throughout June to discuss ways to increase transit usage in the state through its Transit for Tennessee 2025 initiative.

This is the first time the Tennessee Department of Transportation has attempted to go statewide to all 26 agencies we partner with to determine their needs for a 20-year planning period, said Ben Smith, director of TDOTs public transportation, waterways and rail division.

TDOT sponsored six public meetings in smaller, regional cities in June. A second round of meetings will be held in the larger metropolitan areas of Memphis, Chattanooga, Nashville and Knoxville this fall.

According to TDOT, the states population is estimated to grow 25 percent between 2002 and 2025. With that population growth comes more automobile traffic on the roadways, clogging the streets and damaging the environment.

When TDOT visits Memphis in September or October, officials will hear public comments presumably good and bad about transit in the Mid-South.

We want to assess their needs for that whole period, Smith said. We want to know how people feel; do they want to see improvements.

He said one of many topics of discussion in Memphis probably will center on a proposed light rail system.

A more pressing need, though considering the light rail project could be years from fruition is changing perception about public transportation in Memphis.

Ive worked in transit for over 25 years and I believe the perception is that public transit is for poor black people, said Alison Burton, marketing and customer service director for the Memphis Area Transit Authority. I think people perceive some fear of waiting in a bus stop. It doesnt have to do with transit, but thats society today.

Thats why we have three terminals, two Downtown.

Central Station in the South Main area, the North End Terminal next to The Pyramid and the Southeast Terminal on American Way each serve as a safe collection point for transit riders, she said.

Our goal is to build more of those around the city, Burton said. And certainly, waiting in one of those is better than standing at American Way and Getwell.

Changing Memphians perception is just one way TDOT could achieve its goal of getting more people in vehicles of higher occupancy, as Smith put it.

Another way would be to simply provide more busses. But funding can sometimes be a difficult hurdle to clear.

We dont have a dedicated source of funding like some other cities may have, Burton said.

MATA receives funding from the city and state, and some federal aid. And, of course, theres the money generated from riders.

Some metropolitan areas have taxes to help fund public transportation. That might or might not be an option in Shelby County.

For now, Burton said MATA will focus on marketing. The agency has hired two firms Memphis-based Thompson & Co. and the Bingham Group from Knoxville to market MATA.

The majority of MATAs ridership includes those who have no other option for transportation but the bus, Burton said.

We average 50,000 riders a day, and they know the routes better than I do, she said.

That doesnt help TDOTs goal of getting automobiles off the streets.

Burton said theres one idea that could work in Memphis, though.

What would be more attractive to individuals living in outlying areas (such as Collierville and Germantown) I think they would like a dedicated parking area that is secure, Burton said about a park-and-ride type system. Somewhere they could drive to, a 0- to 5-mile radius of where they live. They could park, board a transit vehicle and take an express trip to Downtown or Midtown.

That express trip would have very few stops, obviously making it a quicker trip than a city bus.

MATA doesnt have anything like that in place, but the agency does operate an express from Memphis International Airport to several Downtown hotels.

It might take that express bus system or the proposed light rail option to get more autos off the streets and their drivers onto mass transit vehicles.

TDOT hopes to find out which options are most viable this fall from the public.


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