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VOL. 132 | NO. 20 | Friday, January 27, 2017

Report: Memphis Trails Peer Cities in Transit Funding

By Patrick Lantrip

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When it comes to public transit funding, Memphis is seriously lagging behind its peer cities, according to a recent report conducted by Innovate Memphis, Livable Memphis and the Greater Memphis Chamber.

According to research conducted by Innovate Memphis, the Bluff City significantly trails its peer cites when it comes to public transit funding. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

One of the main culprits behind the funding disparity, the report says, is the Memphis Area Transit Authority’s lack of a dedicated budget, which means its funding is unpredictable and it relies on elected officials and grants on a year-to-year basis.

“Memphis is seriously underfunded when you look at our peer cities, like Nashville, Louisville and Charlotte,” said MATA chief communications officer Nicole Lacey. “What we’re trying to do is consistently and diligently show the public and our customers that we are committed to positive transformation, but with that comes this need to have dedicated funding, a commitment if you will.”

MATA operates on $84 per capita a year, according to the study, while peer cities may spend as much as $145.

Lacey said that an increase in funding could equate to millions of additional rides per year.

“With the addition of new funding we would be able to increase our service level,” she said. “We would be able to have the capital funds to support the expansion of new buses, new stops and a modern fare-card system. Those are all the foundations in order to have a great transit system, and that’s really imperative for a city like Memphis.”

The report said that land use decisions over time have moved jobs, housing, education, shopping and recreation farther from Memphis’ central core and contributed to a mismatch between employee-rich and job-rich areas of the city.

For example, 170,000 fewer people currently live within the 1970 Memphis city limits, down 27 percent from 1970; over the same time period, annexation efforts have increased land area by 55 percent but population by only 4 percent. And today, nearly 50 percent of jobs are 10 to 35 miles out, which places an additional burden on the city’s poorer residents.

“We have to be able to do a better job to connect people to jobs and other opportunities, so it is critical that we have that funding in order to make ourselves a world-class transit system,” Lacey said. “I think we’ve got our work cut out for us, but I also think that we’re up to the challenge. I think that Memphis is going to be a city that has great transit if we can get that support that we desperately need.”

The recent study also outlined a vision and goals to make public transit a functional, accessible mode of transportation in Memphis. Among them: implementing MATA’s Short Range Transit Plan by this spring, increasing transit service with $30 million in dedicated annual local public funding, establishing a five-year prioritized capital project list that supports expanded bus service and multimodal hubs, and establishing customer focus that increases rider satisfaction and ridership through timely two-way communications.

Of the $30 million in proposed funding, $20 million would be allocated for operating expenses and $10 million for capital expenses, which would add 50 percent more service hours, high-frequency transit routes and 3 million more annual rides.

The $30 million investment could generate $120 million in economic returns and create and support 1,000 jobs in the area each year, according to the report.

In addition to the financial, environmental and public health benefits of the investment, a reliable public transit system may help Memphis compete with similar cities like Nashville in attracting new residents, because according to the report, two-thirds of millennials say high-quality transportation is in their top three factors when choosing a city, and companies seeking these workers will following them to cities that have walkable streets, proximity to partners and customers, and creative collaboration opportunities.

“Improving and reimagining transit is one of the key decisions for Memphis’ future, to increase the prosperity and health of its residents, as well as create a successful, livable Memphis,” said Suzanne Carlson, transportation and mobility project manager for Innovate Memphis, in a statement. “We can’t get there without funding public transit.”

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