Stuck in Neutral
Budget cuts are hampering MATA's innovative plans to add new passengers.
An executive with the Memphis Area Transit Authority says that the public transit agency is moving from the Pony Express to the Space Age.
His comments were of course hyperbole, but only barely.
After years of serving as a punch line and with a reputation for delivering the most basic bus service, MATA now has a new plan and new technology that have the power to transform it. And yet, it’s unlikely to achieve its full potential because at the precise time it’s ready to reinvent itself, City of Memphis funding — which has long been deficient — was cut $2 million.
That’s why Memphis City Councilman Edmund Ford Jr. proposed a referendum on a one-cent increase (the first in 20 years) on each gallon of gas sold in Memphis, earmarking the $3 million to $6 million in new revenues to MATA as the dependable source of funding long sought by the transit agency.
Meanwhile, Memphis City Councilman Shea Flinn has proposed a referendum on a sales tax increase to its statutory limit of 9.5 percent, producing just under $50 million for city coffers. Other cities have tied similar votes to improving parks, adding libraries, correcting flooding, and decreasing the size of school classes. The odds are long that Memphis voters will hike the sales tax rate with only the explanation that it’ll plug holes in the upcoming budget.
While the gas tax for MATA would have the best odds on its own, a ballot that includes two tax increases is likely to spawn a “pox on both your houses” reaction from beleaguered voters. If that happens, instead of MATA implementing its ambitious new action plan, it will instead be cutting budgets — and its ambitions. Even if the gas tax increase is approved, the budget is still about $15 million to $20 million too small for a high-quality public transit system.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of better public transit. Memphis metro is a national leader in the percentage of median household income spent on transportation — 27 percent — and the inadequate funding that thwarts significant transit improvements does nothing to relieve Memphians’ reliance on automobiles.
In addition, quality public transit is a marker for a city that works, in the opinions of the 25- to 34-year-olds being sought by every city because they fuel today’s economy. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean says that improving mass transit is the top issue that he hears from young Nashville residents (and keep in mind that Nashville’s public transit system includes trains).
The absence of “big city transit” is what a research fellow at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital calls “Memphis’ hidden surcharge.” The low cost of living here allowed her to “quit living like a student,” so “instead of three of us crammed into an apartment in Boston, I can buy a house in Memphis. But what they don’t tell you about Memphis is that you have to buy a car because the mass transit is inadequate.”
Despite this and while reacting to the realities of city funding, MATA’s new plan is “revenue neutral,” which means that MATA managers and riders have had to lower expectations. However, MATA leaps ahead of the rest of city government with its use of new technology. For the first time, MATA has GPS technology that tracks every one of its 217 buses over 288 square miles, categorizing them as on-time, ahead-of-time, behind-time, and off-route. It also keeps track of maintenance needs and warns mechanics remotely of looming problems — from low oil pressure to overheated motors.
While this technology is a powerful tool for greater accountability, it gives riders access by computer, phone, or app to real-time schedules similar to the Portland, Oregon, system that has often been hailed as the best-in-class. From now on, someone wanting to catch a bus in Memphis can get precise arrival times for the next three buses, transfer times, and travel times.
There’s no greater symbolism about the changes in MATA than the 1,500 to 2,000 bikes that are attached to the front of buses each month as people abandon their cars. The opportunity to create new customers is hampered by budgets that result in express service runs being cut from 15 to two.
With the budget heading in the wrong direction and interrupting plans and continuity, it will be difficult to fulfill the promise of MATA’s new plan to enhance service, increase ridership, and improve public perception. MATA officials say that the most major customer service improvements in the history of the agency are under way, but at this point, it’s hard for them to find the money to tell anybody.