MATA is working overtime to overhaul its obsolete trolley system. In October 2014, the Memphis Flyer reported that “[MATA General Manager Ron] Garrison says he's working hard to get the trolleys back on track.” He’s not lying.
On January 20, 2015, Garrison appeared at the City Council Public Works, Transportation & General Services Committee to request additional funding from the 2015 Capital Improvement Program Budget for trolley restoration and improvements. On February 3, the resolution easily passed on its first vote.
Although there is one more vote in the public works committee before the resolution goes to the Council floor, MATA will likely get what they’re asking for. Elected to the position by a unanimous MATA Board of Commissioners in August 2014, Garrison’s plea for the trolleys may be the first time a MATA GM has aggressively lobbied for City capital funds.
Sadly, trolleys are motivating this heightened advocacy, and only trolleys will benefit from the results. Memphis is not the only city working diligently on trolley upgrades or new streetcar development. These “trolley follies” have recently become a national trend; it was only 23 years ago when we paid millions to construct the trolley system in Memphis. The Madison Avenue Line is only ten years old and cost $56 million.
Interest in the unsustainable trolley or streetcar, light rail or monorail, etc. enjoys a nationwide resurgence every few years thanks to the powerful, but shortsighted, sway of downtown developers. However cute they look, these antiquated--or sometimes futuristic--amusement park rides often operate at a loss and deplete funding that could be applied to less expensive, more beneficial improvements to mass transit systems. As Lawrence Hanley, President of the Amalgamated Transit Union, said in a recent letter to a Milwaukee council member:
“[I]t may seem odd for our union to oppose a streetcar which will undoubtedly create many jobs for our members. However, based on our recent experience with streetcar projects throughout the U.S., we believe that your resources would be more wisely spent on the expansion of your bus network. In fact, we are very concerned that the streetcar will negatively impact existing bus routes and hurt the working families who rely on them.”
In Memphis, growing pressure from the media and downtown interests may prevent MATA from looking at more cost-effective improvements to its service. Well-intentioned though they may be, MATA’s leadership has little time left in the day, let alone the funds, to improve bus facilities. Instead, they are stuck playing favorites in a dual system that leaves the bus-dependent commuter in the dust. In addition to the familiar tendency of downtown development bankrupting public services, trolley service has no proven economic return to the bank from which it takes. In contrast, the expansion of accessible, reliable, and frequent bus service throughout the city would attract more residents, more tourists, and more revenue.
At the January MATA Board of Commissioners meeting, Garrison spent the majority of his report to the Board chronicling his work to “restore our trolleys.” MATA Board members stressed the urgency of returning the service, one even asking, “What do we have to do to get the trolleys back? Do we need to do a sit-in?” Another complained that the first thing people ask when you say you are a MATA Board member is, “When are the trolleys coming back?”
Garrison responded that MATA is doing as much as possible, including meeting with state legislators and representatives from state and federal transportation agencies. And, of course, requesting additional local funding from our City’s beleaguered Capital Improvements Program (CIP) Budget. He also cited City pressure to have the trolleys operational by May for Memphis In May events as well as the grand opening of Bass Pro, the new tenant of the 24-year-old Memphis Pyramid.
Too often, a lack of dedicated revenue for mass transit in Memphis and across Tennessee pits “choice riders” and tourists against those who rely on bus service every day. This sudden flurry of lobbying for funding from the Tennessee Department of Transportation and from the City’s CIP Budget is a clear example of the enduring priority crisis throughout City government, which routinely excludes low-income neighborhoods in North and South Memphis from new transit improvements.
In 2013, massive cuts in bus service devastated the economies of several historic, working class Memphis neighborhoods. But you won’t see bus riders on the news talking about the loss of bus service in Northaven and New Chicago or Riverside; you won’t hear about the economic damage done to their entire communities. Instead, the narrative is dominated by Trolley Night regulars and Main Street businesses.
So here are a few of the things the Bus Riders Union would like to see capital funding go towards before it’s blown on another shiny object:
The relocation of MATA’s headquarters on Levee Road is urgent. A 2012 study commissioned by MATA calculated that a relocation of MATA headquarters would cost $60 million, with ten percent of the cost, $6 million, contributed from the City’s CIP Budget. The facility, which was built on a landfill at the edge of the Wolf River, is sinking, and will continue to do so forever. Year after year, millions of dollars are spent on repairing damage caused by the steady sinking. The entire transit system is at constant risk of utility fires, floods, and sinkholes, presenting a danger to the employees. MATA staff at the headquarters’ garage won’t even drink the water, citing contamination due to the presence of the landfill. It is too expensive for City Council to keep putting this off.
Numerous expensive projects are being planned for the Pinch District this spring, while the Hudson Transit Center at the northern tip of the Pinch will continue to lack basic repairs and renovations. This appears to be an oversight; City leadership should be motivated to clean up and improve the terminal because of the surge in tourists, pedestrian traffic, and new businesses they eagerly anticipate arriving with the opening of Bass Pro. But more importantly, remodeling the bathrooms, installing free wi-fi, and adding greenery and art will improve conditions for the dedicated daily rider and MATA employees.
CIP funding is also needed to overhaul bus shelters that are currently in a dangerous state of disrepair. Additional shelters should be built along the routes now overcrowded due to the 2013 service cuts, particularly in the North and South Memphis neighborhoods where bus service still exists. New signs on the shelters should include maps, something completely missing from Memphis bus stops. This lack of maps makes it almost impossible for a new rider to navigate the system or for a seasoned rider to track down a new route when her daily route to work has been cut.
Together, these projects would cost the City of Memphis less than an overhaul of our trolley system. At the January MATA Board meeting, Garrison reported that trolleys will cost about $750,000 - 1 million each to repair and at least $2.3 million each to replace. This does not include the costs of replacing or repairing the tracks and infrastructure. Those expenses will be covered by the $600,000 the public works committee is currently considering to put before the Council at the request of Garrison and the MATA Board.
The Bus Riders Union will be demanding funding for its priorities throughout this year’s budget deliberations. We hope that this spring the MATA leadership, the Council, and the Wharton Administration will seek to actively include bus riders when making the budget decisions that directly affect our lives.