Funding Cut Has MATA at Crossroads

By Bill Dries

The city’s bus system isn’t out of the woods yet.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

The Memphis Area Transit Authority’s long drive through a wilderness of record ridership for the trolley system, years of operating funding cuts, withering criticism and millions of dollars in capital funding showed signs this week of continuing for some time.

But the same week that the transit authority got $469,040 in city funding restored by the Memphis City Council, it lost $430,000 in funding from the state of Tennessee.

And as the transit authority board approved some service changes that restored some of the service that was to be cut, one board member suggested exploring filing for bankruptcy reorganization.

The service changes take effect Sept. 22.

“We had two or three major automobile companies that have gone into chapter 11. Every airline of any major consequence has been in chapter 11. We’ve seen cities and counties that are going into reorganization,” said board member John Vergos. “I don’t see why we cannot consider the possibilities. It may not work.”

The new developments in the transit authority’s funding dilemma came Wednesday, Aug. 7, at the end of a three-hour board meeting. The board heard from dozens of people who applauded some of the restorations of planned service cuts but also leveled withering criticism at the transit authority for other changes and the general state of the bus system.

“If people cannot get to work,” Shirley Jones said, “how the hell do you expect the unemployment rate to go down in this city?”

More than 80 percent of those who ride the bus system have no car to get to work or anywhere else.

But the system is such a patchwork of old routes with changes added onto them that the most common complaint voiced at Wednesday’s board meeting was of having to get to a bus stop two hours before the start of a work shift to get to work on time and hope the bus didn’t come early.

“People who don’t have autos should still feel like they are civilized people,” Darrell Watson said as he complained of buses without air conditioning, long walks to bus stops and arriving at work or home drenched in sweat from the summer heat. “Truly you don’t have any idea what it is like to ride these buses.”

“It is horrible,” Raquel Martinez said of the general state of bus service.

The criticism was so intense that transit authority president and general manager William Hudson, who normally doesn’t react to it, said he has been struggling with less funding out of City Hall for the bus system for years.

“You may not want to hear it, but there wasn’t nobody else down there fighting for MATA before this year,” he said.

Hudson’s appointment was extended in June for another six months by the transit authority board.

And Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said he is considering who will follow Hudson, who has been general manager for 19 years and started at the transit authority as a bus driver in 1964.

Wharton said when he took office in late 2009, Hudson indicated he wanted to put in two more years as leader of the transit authority.

“We discussed then a transition process. We’re doing a lot of planning on that. We are working with some outside entities that are going to help us not only conduct a search but to do a thorough review of our entire operations,” Wharton said last month on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”

“It’ll be a total revamp, not merely let’s get a new person in here to run the same old operation.”

But Brad Watkins, director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center who helped organize the Bus Riders Union, was critical of Wharton’s pace on changes to the bus system.

“I want to know where was our mayor in this,” Watkins said, expressing some sympathy for the transit authority board.

“They plan the routes based on the budget they are given by this administration and passed by the council,” he said. “We’ve got to have an administration and a city government that really sees MATA as a priority, that sees public transportation as a priority.”

Watkins also questioned why the issue of funding for the bus system wasn’t raised with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx during his visit to Memphis this week. The visit included a roundtable discussion on transportation issues that some MATA board members said they knew nothing about.