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VOL. 129 | NO. 200 | Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Garrison Charts New Course for MATA

By Bill Dries

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The new president of the Memphis Area Transit Authority wants more collaboration with groups that have ideas about where the city’s bus system can gain passengers while keeping those riders who depend on the bus system.

“It’s a new day and we are going to do things working with the chamber, with economic development … the Downtown Memphis Commission,” said Ron Garrison who began his duties as president and general manager of MATA less than two months ago.

The program can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Short term, Garrison wants to explore flex-route service that doesn’t have the same hours and standards as fixed-route service as well as nodes aimed at select groups of riders at select times.

He also wants to talk with businesses about the use of assessments or fees, with their agreement, that could become a dedicated revenue stream without trying another attempt at a gas tax hike.

Charles “Chooch” Pickard, who has been on the transit authority board for four years, acknowledged the organization has challenges including better customer service as well as promotion. But he also said the bus system has been plagued by “misperceptions.”

He points to existing Midtown bus routes that could capitalize on the success of the Overton Square entertainment district and the Cooper-Young Historic District.

“I don’t think we are promoting them well,” Pickard said of the Downtown to Midtown route. “It probably stops too early for some of those customers. … You can’t just focus on those choice customers. It’s a balancing act. We do need those choice customers to increase revenue.”

Choice riders are those with cars who choose to use the bus system. The majority of MATA riders, approximately 85 percent, however, are those who have no car and no other way to get to and from work and other places they want to and have to go to.

The transit authority competes for choice riders in a city in which it is hard for a bus route with multiple stops to compete with a half-hour to 45-minute commute time to most places in the county.

“Our biggest challenge comes from the fact that we are not a very dense city,” Pickard said. “Most people don’t realize we have the same population as Detroit and they are half the size of us,” he added, referring to the square mileage of the city. “We also have the cheapest parking of any Downtown of our size. Until gas prices start to increase it’s an uphill battle for us.”

Garrison, who prior to coming to Memphis was executive director of the mass transit system in Tallahassee, Fla., and a transportation consultant, said suburban sprawl is a problem that’s created the same challenge in other cities.

“Most cities have built their roads maybe not the best way for people to travel or to use transit,” he said. “We need to think about what we can do now, what can we do for our kids, the grandkids.”

The problem with the city’s road system is its emphasis on east-west routes, which is a reflection of growth and population shifts to the east from the west. The road system needs more north-south routes to intersect with that.

Garrison added he is open to a deeper exploration of a grid system approach to some bus routes, something his predecessor, William Hudson, resisted during his long tenure.

“We can do some of that here,” he said. “But to do a truly grid system, we’d have to slowly change and build our streets a little differently. But I think it’s something, from what I’ve seen to date, that we certainly can improve upon.”

MATA board member John Vergos has been the board’s most vocal advocate of a grid system going back to his days on the Memphis City Council.

And Pickard was an advocate of a quick switch to a grid for a time.

“I came on the board thinking, why don’t we have a grid system here,” he said. “It is more expansive at a time when typically we are losing funding from the city. … It’s the number of buses you need.”

Pickard cautions that a grid system also means changing the tendency of riders to avoid a transfer at all costs.

“It’s getting people used to not taking a bus all the way Downtown from Southeast Memphis and taking another one all the way to Northeast Memphis,” he said. “If we are more grid-like, you are going to have to transfer. Right now our customers are used to taking a long ride on a bus Downtown.”

One recent change that is catching on is using buses in combination with bicycles. Transit authority buses carried 3,000 bicycles on their front-mounted racks in September, according to Garrison. The number has increased each month with Garrison eyeing the development of new bike racks for buses that allow them to store three bicycles at a time.

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