VOL. 132 | NO. 21 | Monday, January 30, 2017
Garrison Exit From MATA Coincides With Push for More Public Funding
By Bill Dries
When he first got to Memphis in the summer of 2014, Ron Garrison got asked the same question a lot – did he know how difficult the job leading the Memphis Area Transit Authority would be.
Garrison never hesitated in answering yes, even as he discovered that two trolleys bursting into flames had prompted a complete shutdown of the trolley line and created an even bigger mess.
There was not only a complete lack of maintenance procedures for the trolleys, he found there was no training for those who were supposed to keep the trolleys in working order.
And that didn’t even touch on the problems faced by MATA’s core business – fixed-route service with arcane routes and a nightmarish funding formula in which 96.5 percent of MATA’s operating funds were being used for capital spending.
In February 2016, Garrison warned the system was on the “verge of collapse” without additional operating funding and more capital funding to buy new buses.
Garrison’s departure following a misdemeanor charge of patronizing prostitution comes as a concerted and coordinated push for a dedicated source of local public funding for MATA ramps up.
A new report from Innovate Memphis, Livable Memphis and the Greater Memphis Chamber shows the level of funding for public transportation in Memphis is behind the funding level for similar systems in peer cities.
The dollar amount being sought annually is about $30 million, with $20 million for operating and $10 million for capital.
Interim MATA CEO Gary Rosenfeld said securing the funding is his top priority.
“We want to keep at the forefront the issue of dedicated funding sources for public transportation,” he said. “That’s the No. 1 issue that we face that will determine the success of the organization in the future.”
The last attempt at that kind of funding was a proposed one-cent-a-gallon increase in the local gasoline tax that was crushed by Memphis voters in a November 2012 referendum.
Voters rejected the proposal to raise an estimated $3 million to $6 million a year in a dedicated revenue stream to MATA as MATA had made its first forays into the concept of Bus Rapid Transit with express service routes on Poplar Avenue and Elvis Presley Boulevard.
The Poplar Express service was dropped after nine months for a lack of ridership. The Whitehaven Flyer service debuted after the referendum was defeated and also lasted less than a year.
Rosenfeld was hired in March 2016 from being general manager of the Delaware North-Yosemite Transportation System, overseeing all transportation services and programs in the national park. Before his 13-year stint at Yosemite, Rosenfeld was president and CEO of United Pacific Transportation Resources Inc. of Riverside, California. He worked at various positions for 12 years at Laidlaw Transit in the Los Angeles area.
MATA board chairman Sean Healy announced the board will undertake a national search and Rosenfeld indicated he is interested in applying along with others.
Healy said Garrison’s departure won’t change the trajectory of the organization and its goals.
“We gave some very specific strategic direction to the general manager several months ago,” Healy said of the board. “That hasn’t changed. Among those are finding an appropriate funding source so that we can put the right funding in our transit authority to really make it best in class. We’ve got some work to do in that space. It’s going to be a little bit of a diversion as we try to find a new GM. I’m not going to sugar coat that, but the mission continues to be the same.”
In a written statement, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland expressed confidence in Rosenfeld’s leadership.
“Our ability to improve public transit will determine how well the city and county fully achieve ambitious goals for the future – whether in economic development, poverty reduction, talent retention and attraction, sustainability or growth,” he added.