Gas Tax Supporters Escalate Campaign

By Bill Dries

On a recent cold fall day, backers of a one-cent-a-gallon local gasoline tax on the Nov. 6 ballot rallied for their cause on the parking lot of the Memphis Area Transit Authority’s north end terminal.

Revenues from a one-cent-a-gallon local gasoline tax that’s on the Nov. 6 ballot would help fund public transportation via the Memphis Area Transit Authority.

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

“You have cities such as Atlanta and St. Louis that already have designated funding sources for public transportation and mass transit,” said Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford Jr., who proposed the ballot question approved by the council.

Ford noted that no Tennessee city has a recurring revenue stream that goes to public transportation.

“We can change that,” he said, as the group of supporters representing a dozen local organizations applauded.

The rally, organized by the Memphis chapter of the Sierra Club, drew the interest of some passengers waiting to catch buses at the terminal. A few school children held signs supporting the tax hike before scurrying to catch a bus. Some adults at the terminal voiced support for the cause, others watched and listened.

Still others were waiting to catch a MegaBus that doesn’t use the terminal but picks up passengers and drops them off on a nearby sidewalk.

The extra cent per gallon at gas pumps within the city of Memphis would create an estimated $3 million to $6 million in extra revenue annually that would go to MATA.

Before a taping earlier in the week of the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines” with Ford, MATA board member John Vergos rolled out a map of the new and improved routes to be offered, some starting in December, others later if the local gas tax is approved.

Vergos was also a vocal critic of the bus system routes in particular before Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. appointed him to the transit authority board.

He said the bus system has plans to drop a numbering system for routes that those who don’t ride the buses are unfamiliar with.

Instead, the transit system will go to referring to bus routes by the main thoroughfare they travel, making it easier to understand bus routes that, in some cases, veer onto small residential side streets in complex route structures.

The focus will be on the eight most utilized routes in the existing system that cover all parts of the city – specifically on cutting the wait time between buses on those routes during peak hours.

When you vote yes for this, this money cannot be used in ... another area. By state law, it must go to public transportation.

–Edmund Ford Jr.
Memphis City Council member

“Fixed route bus service will be the highest priority. MATA Plus and the Downtown trolley will benefit as well,” said transit authority president Will Hudson. Other revenue from the gas tax hike will go to improve bus shelters.

No organized opposition to the gas tax proposal has surfaced.

Meanwhile, the gas tax ballot question has been very much in the shadow of the more hotly contested countywide sales tax hike on the same ballot. That ballot question has groups for and against the proposal who were working early voting sites. Proponents of the sales tax hike have sent more direct mail pieces to voters than the two candidates in the 9th Congressional district race.

It’s hard to tell how the gas tax hike will fare with less attention.

The issue for many riders is improving city bus service. And some of the organizations supporting the gas tax question have had issues with the transit authority in the past over the quality of bus service.

Jacob Flowers, executive director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, has been among those critics who are supporting the tax.

“We’re coming together to say that this is vital, that this is important for our city,” Flowers said. “When you look at it, in all reality we are talking about an amount not all that large for any one individual.”

Ford is emphasizing that the money has to go to the transit authority.

“When you vote yes for this, this money cannot be used in the general fund or another area,” he said. “By state law it must go to public transportation.”

And Ford vowed to watch closely to guard against any moves that might materialize to reduce city funding for the bus system from other sources and offset that cut with the sales tax revenue.