VOL. 131 | NO. 73 | Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Rapid Transit Option, Route Changes Designed To Make MATA More Relevant
By Madeline Faber
Budget season is looming, and the Memphis Area Transit Authority is angling for an additional $8 million in operating funds and $5 million in capital improvement dollars to prevent significant cuts to service.
“We have no capital reserve. We have no operational reserve,” said Ron Garrison, director of MATA, on on the WKNO-TV program “Behind the Headlines.”
“We’re crunching the numbers and looking at ways to make changes in the routes to minimize that.
I don’t think we’ll get the full eight million, but some semblance of that in a smaller amount to keep us from having to cut the service,” he added.
Since taking the position a year and a half ago, Garrison has tried to bring about as much revenue-neutral change as possible. He said that has cleared up data integrity issues in the IT department and sent MATA bus drivers through conflict resolution and customer service training.
Also among those changes are 16 new route adjustments the MATA board of commissioners approved in March.
John Vergos, board commissioner with MATA, said he has been a long-time advocate for moving Memphis on a grid-like route structure, but he kept running up against a board that was unwilling to accept the task of straightening out MATA’s 36 routes.
“But that day is gone,” he said. MATA has a new board, a new leader and strong partnerships with the new administration.
The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.
The 16 route changes set the stage for a larger framework, dubbed the Short Range Transit Plan. The plan reworks MATA’s system with the same amount of buses and miles covered. The rest of the plan will be rolled out in December, Vergos said.
“It matches land use, like how you go in your car to your destination, which shortens travel time and increases efficiency and productivity,” Garrison added.
Another major MATA undertaking is implementing a Bus Rapid Transit route. For the past two years, MATA has been working with outside consultants on developing a route that would strengthen coverage in the urban core. The recommended route runs from Downtown to the University of Memphis area with a bus every 10 minutes.
MATA is moving quickly with the recommendation to reach an April 29 deadline for a $20 million federal TIGER, or Transportation Investment Generating Recovery, grant.
Though buses along the route will be similar to other buses in MATA’s fleet, the route will be branded differently and will be targeted at attracting “choice riders,” or people who have cars but would take public transit if it were easier to access.
“If you look at young people today, they want to move to places where they can’t have a car or a second car,” Garrison said, adding that the annual cost of having a car reaches upwards of $10,000. MATA is betting that the route will draw 1,500 additional riders, which is double the amount of people who currently take the route.
“The strength of the urban core is a major factor in the strength of the whole region,” he said. “Double ridership would be just the beginning.”
Vergos sees the choice riders and Short Range Transit Plan as part of a larger cultural transformation for MATA. Vergos has been on the board for seven years and has ties with MATA going back to 1977, and he said MATA is working harder than ever to improve how it serves the community.
“The culture is something that’s not been great, so we’ve just not been very favorable to the public,” he said.
To improve service, MATA is campaigning for additional city funding while exploring other revenue-driving options.
MATA is in preliminary discussions with the Shelby County Schools board for providing student bus services. The Short Range Transit Plan redirects routes to run near many of the city’s high schools, Vergos said. Instead of outsourcing bus service, SCS could write MATA a check for $3 million to $4 million, which would cover a good chunk of MATA’s deficit.
Discussing the trolleys, Garrison said they haven’t traditionally been a cash-positive operation, but MATA is continuing to work on getting the streetcars back on the grid. Garrison said he plans to have the Main Street trolleys back within a year, with the Riverfront Loop and Madison Avenue routes following suit.
“If we do the trolleys the way we plan to do, they’ll come more often, they’ll be on time, they won’t break down – because they used to break down every 500 miles – ridership will double or triple and it will be a huge economic tool in bringing people Downtown that we haven’t seen before.”