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VOL. 11 | NO. 32 | Saturday, August 11, 2018

A Costly Ride

City tasked with selling a better plan for MATA at $30M per year.

Toni Lepeska, Special to The Daily News

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Memphis is poised to adopt a transit plan that promises a big economic splash, but first supporters must sell the general public on a $30 million annual price tag before any transformation occurs.

“Everyone in Memphis has an interest in a good, effective transit system,” said Mayor Jim Strickland, already in promotion mode, “even if you never get on a bus.”

Officials expect a revamped transit system to get the greatest number of people to the greatest number of jobs while servicing existing corridors of commerce. By strengthening the bus system, they also tackle poverty, bolster talent retention and nurse the environment.

A draft of the transit plan, called Memphis 3.0 Transit Vision Draft Recommended Network, suggests that for $30 million a year, Memphians will get around the city easier. And faster. Along some routes, buses will show up every 15 minutes, an industry standard.

Most MATA routes run every hour to 90 minutes now, and only a few MATA routes offer 30-minute frequency, with the exception of the Main Street trolley with a 15-minute frequency. To increase frequency, MATA would have to hire additional drivers to operate additional buses.

While not part of the draft plan, MATA announced this summer that it will buy 10 electric buses – its first to run only on electric power – with $20 million in grants from the state. The money also will fund construction of electric charging stations. The buses will run along a new route that will serve Memphis International Airport and the Southeast Memphis area. MATA will get the funds over a three-year period.

The trolley system – the Main Street trolley line was reactivated April 30 after an absence of more than four years, and two more lines will return, too – was not changed as part of the plan.

If the transit plan is approved by the Memphis City Council and funded, Memphis riders will see buses more frequently on certain major routes such as along Union and Lamar avenues, two routes that radiate from Downtown. Those buses will meet the “high frequency” definition of 15 minutes, and buses will run along the Poplar Avenue corridor every 20 minutes.

High-frequency service also would be extended to two north-south Crosstown routes: the Watkins/Cleveland/Elvis Presley Boulevard corridor (similar to current route 42) and the Hollywood/Cooper/Airways corridor (similar to current route 32).

According to the draft plan, the existing network gives only about 12,000 people, or 3 percent of the population, access to frequent service while the recommended changes to the system would bring frequent service to 79,000 more people. Fourteen percent of residents would be near frequent service. In all, nearly 85 percent of residents would be within a half mile of any transit service, up by about 5 percent.

A passenger hops on the MATA 50 heading downtown from the Benjamin L. Hooks library. The proposed new bus system will provide high frequency service down the Poplar corridor arriving every 20 minutes. (The Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

The draft plan, a work-in-progress that has been evolving for more than a year, was put through a third round of community engagement beginning in April. Officials collected survey data that is still being digested, but Suzanne Carlson with Innovate Memphis, a partner in developing a new transit vision for the city, doesn’t expect the data to alter this draft too much.

That’s because a resounding 78 percent of people surveyed agreed or strongly agreed a stronger bus system would be better for the city, said Carlson, Innovate Memphis’ transportation and mobility project manager. And, she said, they favor spending the extra $30 million to get it.

But Mayor Strickland knows that he’s got some selling to do.

‘Getting the Facts Out There’

Memphis can’t just come up with $30 million annually from normal growth. The budget typically grows about $10 million a year, a third of what would be needed, and the additional funds are quickly gobbled up, the mayor said. Elected officials would have to come up with a different stream of funding. They could lean on sales tax, or on fees such as those on car tags.

Officials may turn to a referendum that, if approved by voters, would raise money from taxes.

That kind of idea recently bombed in Nashville. Officials there hoped to raise taxes for a $5.2 billion transit system, anchored by light rail. Though backed by political and business heavyweights, including the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, the referendum failed in May by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.

Based on his years of experience in elected office in Memphis, Strickland said the general public typically has had very little interest in transit. Most think MATA is run inefficiently. They see mostly empty buses rolling along major roads.

In fact, the system isn’t inefficient, Strickland said. It is underfunded for the city’s size.

The nation’s capital transit system is a model of service, but there are stark differences between Washington, D.C. and Memphis, said John Zeanah, director of the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development, one of the partners participating in the transit plan. MATA’s challenges stem from city size, or density.

Washington, D.C. is 70 square miles, a fifth the geographic size of Memphis, which makes getting around by bus or train a lot easier.

“There are a lot of areas in Memphis that are very difficult to service,” Zeanah said. “Since 1970, we’ve grown our land area by 50 percent. Our population hasn’t really grown substantially. So the transit area has the task of serving a much greater area with the same resources.”

About 15,000 jobs in the city aren’t filled primarily because people cannot get to them, Strickland said. The transit vision begins to address this problem by getting buses more frequently to places of commerce, to the places where the most jobs are.

Only about 36,000 jobs, or 6 percent of all jobs, are near frequent service now, according to the draft plan. The recommended system would provide frequent service near 103,000 more jobs, bringing 24 percent of jobs in the city within the range of frequent service.

Strickland is interested in “getting the facts out there.”

That’s the way the mayor expects to build public support – and the support of the business community – for funding a transit revamp. It’s the right thing for those who need it, he said, and key to economic progress for the entire city. He is optimistic in the face of the odds. At various forums, he’s started getting questions from audiences about transit and buses.

“The community dialogue is starting,” he said.

Turning Talk into Action

Girls Inc., has been part of the dialogue. With girls from 41 ZIP codes participating in the nonprofit’s programs that aim to churn out successful, healthy and educated adults, transportation always has been a topic of discussion.

“It always comes back to if we had better public transportation, we wouldn’t have these kinds of issues,” said Lisa Moore, the nonprofit’s CEO.

Transit plan officials engaged the organization and its community of families and supporters in workshops and solicited ideas, an experience that Moore called “really powerful.”

As a young student, the CEO said she easily rode the bus to where she wanted to go, but now it takes a ridiculously long time to get from place to place by public bus.

To get from Frayser to Shelby Drive across town in Southeast Memphis, for example, takes more than two hours. For people with jobs, that’s an undue burden, Moore said, and for students, a hurdle that keeps them from getting to after-school programs and enriching places like museums.

No one solution came out of discussions, though one fact became clear.

“There was no one silver bullet,” Moore said. “The prevailing issue was …we need to invest more. I hope the city can mobilize on the ideas.”

The transit plan will be incorporated into the Memphis 3.0 comprehensive plan that will address land use. Using such a plan as a guide, officials will be able to build transit into land-use designations and “make smarter decisions,” said Zeanah with the planning office.

While the transit plan and land-use plan are on track to merge by January, officials are eyeing even longer range plans to boost connectivity.

“To reach more jobs and opportunities,” Zeanah said of this phase. “This is a good first step.”

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