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VOL. 132 | NO. 85 | Friday, April 28, 2017

MATA Prepares Case for $30M Increase To Fund Bus System Improvements

By Bill Dries

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Probably by the end of the summer, a group pushing for $30 million in additional funds for the Memphis Area Transit Authority will be making the case to the public to raise that dedicated source of funding.

The Memphis Area Transit Authority has a plan to change the city bus system so that no one-way trip by bus takes longer than an hour, with bus stops within a quarter-mile of where 70 percent of the population lives and from where they work. The plan would require an additional $30 million in funding.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

And they will do it by touting an overhauled bus system in which a one-way trip anywhere on the system takes about an hour or less, with a bus stop within a quarter-mile of where 70 percent of the population lives as well as a quarter-mile of where it works.

“The vast improvement that we are looking at for Memphis today increases the reach by improving the frequency of service,” said Memphis Area Transit Authority interim CEO Gary Rosenfeld. “We figure that we can double our ridership in a very short period of time after we implement all of the service.”

The late summer rollout will be more specific about how MATA and the groups it is working with would propose to raise the money, but there are already some tried as well as new possibilities.


“How we do that will be designed on several different options. One could be sales tax; local gas tax is an opportunity,” Rosenfeld said. “There are different options we are looking at and nothing is set.”

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s IMPROVE Act, approved by the Tennessee General Assembly on Monday, April 24, includes a set of six options local governments could put to voters in referendums to fund public transportation. They include a sales tax surcharge for transit.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry announced Wednesday, April 26, the city would seek a local referendum provided for in the act to create funding for an ambitious regional transit plan there.

A 1-cent increase in the local gas tax to support MATA was put to Memphis voters in November 2012. The local option gas tax hike was voted down, with 61.8 percent voting “no.”

“We’ve improved our service levels. We’ve increased our on-time performance from the mid-40s (percentages) to the mid-70s. We’ve expanded the service where we can,” Rosenfeld said. “We’ve done our best to keep the service level where it has traditionally been over the last few years.”

Still he acknowledges the campaign for local public funding will have to be sold to a skeptical public.

MATA numbers show 12 million bus rides a year a decade ago compared to 8 million annually now. Rosenfeld is vowing with the money and the changes it will fund that he can get back riders and more.

“We have to explain the benefit to a shop owner on Poplar as to why it’s good for there to be a bus stop in front of his shop as compared to a mile down the street,” Rosenfeld said. “We have to explain to the large employer the benefits of being able to shift huge percentages of your employees from driving their cars to work to riding the bus.”

The push for business support includes an example of encouraging employers to use the bus system for their workforces on the stretch of Lamar Avenue to the Mississippi state line that is a priority in the road project funding at the core of the IMPROVE act.

“The state’s going to do a lot of work on that area, but we haven’t asked the employers to shift any of their employees to public transportation,” Rosenfeld said of the businesses along the city’s major freight corridor. “If we were to shift 5,000 employees, it could have an economic benefit of close to a quarter of a billion dollars a year on the greater Memphis economy.”

The revenue from the 1-cent gas tax increase voted down in 2012 was to go for the same specific goals an Innovate Memphis working group outlined last year, including $30 million in new funding.

The white paper by a transit funding working group set the stage for the ongoing effort that includes discussions with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration.

“Transit, walking and bicycling here can be wildly inconvenient and sometimes dangerous,” the report reads, noting that less than 8 percent of Memphis-area workers get to work by some combination of buses, bikes, walking and working from home.

And 79 percent drive alone, while 13 percent carpool.

The working group recommended $20 million in ongoing capital and $10 million in capital with a five-year prioritized list aimed at expanding bus service and multi-modal hubs.

“The public transit deficit compounds a vicious cycle that essentially requires Memphians, regardless of their incomes, to buy cars to reach jobs and services that were once within walking distance,” the white paper concludes. “In turn, governments respond by investing overwhelmingly in driving.”

Since the report was released, the Strickland administration’s Memphis 3.0 effort has taken up the issue as part of its series of public meetings aimed at fashioning a 20-year master plan for the city to be completed by 2019.

The need for better public transportation is also a part of the Greenprint plan that Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell spearheaded.

Luttrell acknowledges that broader use of public transportation faces challenges that are beyond where the buses run and how frequently they run.

“The issues we’re encountering here that we must overcome first and foremost is the culture,” he said. “It’s an issue that, I think, as we see the cost of government, density comes into that discussion.”

Rosenfeld says the Memphis culture surrounding the bus system may be changing with baby boomers aging and millennials possibly more open to “transit-friendly communities.”

“It’s not just an expense,” he said. “It’s an economic driver.”

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