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VOL. 130 | NO. 49 | Thursday, March 12, 2015

MATA Head Draws Heat on Trolley Delays

By Bill Dries

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The president and CEO of the Memphis Area Transit Authority told a group of South Main residents and business owners this week the trolley system is “starting all over from scratch” and won’t be operational any time soon.

MATA President Ron Garrison told a group of South Main residents and business owners Tuesday, March 10, that the trolley system won’t be fully restored soon, but said the restored system will be better than it was before service was cut in June.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

Ron Garrison encountered questions and some pointed criticism during his talk to about 100 members of the South Main Association at Beale Street Landing.

“The trolleys are not going to be back – the vintage trolleys that we have right now – real soon,” Garrison told the group. “We were trying desperately to get them back by the time that Memphis in May starts and that will not happen.”

Garrison held out some hope that two to three trolleys might be cleared to run on a limited schedule on the Main Street Mall in May or June. But he didn’t have a specific date for when the overhauled system, closed last June because of trolley fires, would be back completely.

“I will not say that they will not be back in ’15,” he said. “What I will say is something will be back in ’15 and I hope and believe that it will be some semblance of the current trolleys. … It may be leased trolleys. It may be some leased streetcars. It could be a mix of the two.”

All service on the trolley system – including the Main Street line, the Riverside loop and the Madison Avenue leg – halted in June as MATA investigated two flash fires that occurred within a year. A peer review process of trolley and transit experts concluded the trolley system had little if any regulation or training and no maintenance, at least none for which any reliable records were kept. The review also concluded that most of the vintage trolley cars bought in the early 1990s from Portugal and Australia were at the end of their useful lives, even taking into account their restoration upon their arrival in Memphis.

Garrison also detailed a daunting set of federal and state regulatory agencies including the Federal Transit Administration and the Tennessee Department of Transportation who must give their approval for the trolley system to resume running as well as consultants the transit authority is working with.

“What you’ve just described is to me a bureaucratic nightmare,” said Karl Schledwitz, the CEO of Monogram Foods and a Downtown homeowner as well as investor and developer. “With all due respect, you haven’t provided us any solution other than you’ve told us that y’all have hired 15 consultants and you still don’t even have a plan to share with us.”

Schledwitz acknowledged Garrison has only been in charge at MATA since September. But he still termed the situation “an embarrassment.”

“I do agree. It is an embarrassment,” Garrison replied. “The Federal Transit Administration and TDOT would be remiss if they did not require us to go through this process that we’re going through.”

“To hire 13 consultants?” Schledwitz asked.

Garrison counted five consultants, instead of 13. But he said the regulatory hoops are rigorous and necessary to guarantee the system’s safety.

“I don’t have any easy answer for you,” he added. “At this stage, we don’t have a choice. And we shouldn’t have a choice.”

But Garrison said the involved process amounts to a “brand new start” for an “infinitely better” trolley system with 3 million riders possible compared to the 1 million riders the transit authority tallied before the shutdown.

“I know that this is something we can do,” he said. “What it looks like in the interim isn’t what it’s going to look like long term.”

A South Main merchant complained about a lack of signage for out-of-town visitors to the district whom she said wait in all types of weather with increasing frustration not knowing the trolleys aren’t running. Meanwhile, she complained that foot traffic in the area is next to non-existent.

“Is there any sense of urgency?” she asked Garrison.

Garrison insisted there is, with him and his staff working 12-18 hours days.

“If that’s not urgent enough for you, I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “You guys don’t know me. I’m dying on the inside. Our sense of urgency is off the charts.”

PROPERTY SALES 41 308 2,265
MORTGAGES 47 379 2,607
BUILDING PERMITS 128 1,018 6,068
BANKRUPTCIES 53 255 1,787