MATA Eyes Greener Future, Prepares For Upcoming Service Changes

By Michael Waddell

Despite being hampered by a tight budget, the Memphis Area Transit Authority is making strides to be more green and environmentally sensitive, including participating in National Dump the Pump Day in June and offering reduced fares on “Ozone Days” throughout the year, as well as recently collaborating with the EPA to install air pollution-monitoring stations.

MATA interim CEO Gary Rosenfeld rides a trolley bus down South Main Street on National Dump the Pump Day in June. The transit system is exploring green initiatives and preparing to roll out more than two dozen service changes. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

MATA is also beginning the process of making the move towards using electric buses, with one on the way for testing and a grant in progress that could add 16 electric buses to its fleet of more than 300 vehicles.

“The industry is moving towards electric vehicles,” said MATA interim CEO Gary Rosenfeld, who points out some industry estimates say new diesel-powered buses will no longer be available within 10 years. “The industry is capable of providing us with a bus that is full-sized and can operate for a full day [before charging]. All of the major manufacturers here in the U.S. and a couple of overseas manufacturers have introduced electric vehicles into their product lines. So it’s technology that’s being readily accepted and we’re actively seeking some grant opportunities to pay for some electric buses.”

Grant applications were turned in near the end of June, and Rosenfeld expects to hear back by the end of the year. In the meantime, MATA will test one electric bus, which it just received, around the city to see how it handles.

The cost of an electric bus is $780,000, roughly 75 percent more than a standard diesel bus at $450,000.

“But that extra cost is offset by tremendous savings in fuel and operating expense, so it’s not as bad as it seems,” Rosenfeld said. “Also, we have to upgrade infrastructure to be able to handle any number of electric vehicles. As you’re getting involved in electric vehicles, the biggest expense is probably infrastructure improvements to be able to charge the vehicles.”

Memphis is looking to models like the Antelope Valley in California, which could be the first all-electric bus fleet in the country by 2018.

MATA recently put 15 new clean diesel buses into service in the Memphis area.

“Emissions on those vehicles match that of what we used to put forward on our hybrid buses, so that’s a good step forward,” Rosenfeld said.

Additionally, he says MATA plans to rebuild 14 buses locally with new engines and transmissions to help provide cleaner emissions, and another nine buses will go into production next January and be delivered to Memphis by the end of March.

Historically MATA, which touts 7.7 million passenger trips in the past year, sees about a 10 percent increase in ridership on National Dump the Pump Day, and it offers bus rides for 25 cents on Ozone Days – days when the Shelby County Health Department issues an ozone alert, which happens an average of five to six times a year.

Last November, MATA announced a collaborative project with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Shelby County Health Department for field testing newly installed, lower-cost air pollution sensor pods in the Memphis area. Air sensor pods were installed at 16 locations, including seven health department locations and three MATA transit facilities.


Beyond the green initiatives, MATA also is preparing to implement more than two dozen service changes on Aug. 6.

The changes, which the MATA board of commissioners unanimously approved June 27, include four new routes – 31 Firestone, 45 Appling Farms, 280 Airways Express and 340 Walnut Grove Express – along with 24 timing and routing adjustments.

The pending route changes include a partial return of the Crosstown 31, which was created in the 1960s and was one of MATA’s most popular routes until it was reconfigured to remove sections stretching into North Memphis and South Memphis. In a public hearing May 31, MATA announced it would restore the northern connection on what is now known as Crosstown 42 to renew service to the New Chicago neighborhood in North Memphis. The Memphis Bus Riders Union wants to get the southern part back too.

“We’re pleased that MATA has decided to restore part of the route,” said Justin Davis, secretary of the Memphis Bus Riders Union and organizing coordinator for the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. “For us, it is very significant – not just for the bus riders in the city in general but also for the New Chicago neighborhood, considering that they have not had bus service that actually went into the neighborhood for several years now.”

Davis stresses the demand came from many Riverside community members who need those buses to get to grocery stores, work and school.

“The 31 Firestone covers the New Chicago area, which was one of the areas that we were really prioritizing during our campaign, but it doesn’t cover Soulsville and Riverside, two neighborhoods along the southern end of the route,” Davis said. “We are still concerned about making sure there is adequate service on the southern end of that route, and we do plan on continuing to push for that.”

The new routes will run as demonstration projects for the next 120 days to see how much traffic and demand they receive.

“Due to our financial situation,” Rosenfeld said, “we have to be very cautious on how we add service and do different demonstration projects because what we don’t want to have to do is eliminate things due to budgetary constraints in the future.”

Other changes are aimed at helping the transit system improve its timeliness, said John Lancaster, MATA director of planning and scheduling.

“In addition to the new routes, the other big message is on-time performance, which we’ve been improving all along with changes and timing shifts along the routes so that operators can operate them more efficiently,” Lancaster said.

MATA’s on-time performance has risen to 75 percent and the goal is to hit 85 percent by the end of the year.

Rosenfeld recently talked to local Sierra Club members about MATA’s plan to debut new bus routes next month, the return of the trolley cars to Downtown by the end of the year, and how millennials and aging baby boomers are getting away from owning a car when possible.

Meeting attendees had the chance to discuss ways to improve Memphis’ public transportation system, including ideas to install permanent, colorful route maps at every bus and trolley stop.


Many of the problems in implementing the changes needed to take the transit system to the next level simply come down to lack of funding. MATA operates on a budget of $62 million and is seeking an additional $30 million.

“The IMPROVE Act will allow local jurisdictions to place valid initiatives before the voters for a sales tax surcharge, which would allow us to collect a dedicated source of funding based on sales taxes in the city of Memphis,” Rosenfeld said. “It’s an exciting opportunity because it would enable MATA to be able to plan for the future and provide services on the basis of a secured funding source rather than us having to hold our breath every year to see where our funding levels are going to be.”

He estimates the sales tax surcharge would raise the $30 million needed and pave the way for

MATA to increase its frequency and span of service, thus improving opportunities for riders to get anywhere in the city in an hour or less, and fund improved signage at bus stops and transit centers.

Not included in the additional requested funding is MATA’s desire for an updated facility. The transit authority, which has operated out of its current space since the 1980s, plans to submit a grant application to the Federal Transit Administration for a facility under a discretionary program.

“It might be over a period of years so we could do land acquisition, architectural and engineering, and then construction costs in a series of asks, and then there would be matching funds from a local match,” Rosenfeld said.