Editorial: Leadership Change Needed at MATA

Saturday, November 16, 2013, Vol. 6, No. 47

It’s a coincidence that this week's cover story is on leadership, as word came of the planned retirement at year's end of William Hudson, president of the Memphis Area Transit Authority.

For 20 years, Hudson has led the city’s public transportation system and it has been a rough 20 years of changing trends, a local ridership in which close to 90 percent of the regular riders have no car and no other way to get to work. And most important in those 20 years, the system has become a patchwork of additions and subtractions built atop a framework that once worked but now no longer does and no longer makes much sense.

Change at MATA is long overdue and the next leader will not have the luxury of blowing up the system and starting all over. It's not that simple.

The system has to continue to operate for the men and women who simply have no other alternative. That doesn't mean it can't work better for them and also draw those who do have alternatives but might choose to ride the bus if the system of numbers and routes made sense.

Memphis must have a mass transit system that works.

This is work that is long overdue. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has had a chance since taking office in late 2009 to make more appointments to the MATA board that could have started the reforms there much sooner.

Hudson indicated he wanted to stay until 2011 and then retire. We hope that in the two intervening years City Hall has gathered some ideas about a successor to Hudson and will move as quickly as possible to put in place new leadership, local or otherwise – not leadership that is connected in any way to the existing day-to-day operation of the transit authority.

There are more than enough studies about a better way to run the buses and get Memphians where they need to be and be there without waiting longer for the buses to take them there and home than they actually spend at work.

MATA needs more than the transit authority's first attempt at the bus rapid transit concept – the Poplar Express route that was cancelled after less than a year in which it was one of the best-kept secrets at MATA.

The Whitehaven Flyer is about a month old and is the equivalent of breaking the sound barrier for MATA: Downtown to Graceland in a half hour. And that's without the signalization to come on Elvis Presley Boulevard that should improve the inbound and outbound times even more.

Our recent test ride of the Flyer shows too few riders and signs of dying a similar death because it is just not being promoted.

Whether its leadership is local or the result of a national search, MATA needs change and it needs it now.