Led by Shelby County Commissioners Tami Sawyer and Mick Wright (in the background), an ad hoc public transit committee session generated questions and concerns, along with proposed solutions. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Monumental Baptist Church in South Memphis served as the gathering place Monday evening for the Shelby County Board of Commissioners first public transit ad hoc committee meeting.

Dozens of citizens and elected officials convened for the in-the-community session led by Commissioners Tami Sawyer and Mick Wright. The goal is to develop a streamlined proposal to provide $10 million in county funding to the Memphis Area Transit Authority.

The February 4 discussion marked the first in a series of four public meetings.

“We’re going to work together as a community towards this effort,” Sawyer said to the 40-plus attendees. She reiterated that the committee’s goal was to get something “sound” on the table for the Shelby County budget committee to review for the spring.

Commissioners have already approved $1.5 million of the county’s capital improvement budget to be allocated to MATA. That came during their last meeting (Jan. 27); but the decision provides only a fraction of the amount MATA needs to improve infrastructure and routes.

More than a dozen potential funding sources were presented at the first ad hoc meeting. That included Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris’ plan to charge a $145 sustainability fee for addresses with three passenger vehicles. The fee would be added to the third. Harris was not at the ad hoc meeting.

Shelby County Clerk Wanda Halbert, who has publicly raised questions about the effectiveness of Harris’ plan, was in attendance. She asked the commission to consider the impact the fee would have on her employees, who would have the additional task of collecting the payments.

Offering another plan for consideration was Commissioner Brandon Morrison, who presented her resolution to raise vehicle registration by $20, with $14 going to MATA. The remainder of the funds would be used to hire sheriff’s deputies. Morrison said her plan would raise at least $9 million for the transit company.

“Every strong growing city ultimately needs a strong public system,” she said. “People in Shelby County need to be able to get to jobs.”

Commissioner Wright offered what he dubbed “The Wright Plan.” The proposal would allow all Shelby County Internet sales tax revenue to be earmarked for public transportation. Wright expects that at least $4.7 million could be collected from the revenue.

“I set our sights a little bit lower,” he said, noting that his plan is more than $5 million shy of the original $10 million requested from MATA. “But what this does – in my view – is that we’re raising revenue from the companies that are outside of the state of Tennessee, which is something that we’ve been eager to do.”

The first of four ad hoc committee sessions on public transit gave attendees a chance to weigh in and several lined up to do so.
(Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Commissioner Sawyer also emphasized the need for city, county and private companies such as FedEx and Nike to come together to discuss funding.

MATA CEO Gary Rosenfeld was present at the public meeting and said in his talks with the private sector, they’ve asked what the county is willing to contribute.

“We need a dedicated ongoing source of funding to make this work,” he said. “A private company could pull out at any time. That’s why a county commitment is important.”

Transit supporters from Citizens for Better Service and Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH) were also at the meeting. One Micah organizer shared a personal story before asking the commissioners to proceed with urgency as it relates to transit.

“I am speaking as a citizen who uses public transportation,” MICAH organizer Essence C. Jackson said before detailing her experience using the transit system to get to work one Saturday. She said the usually 15-minute route driving a car, took her three hours on the bus.

“I just want everyone to understand the urgency around this. People’s livelihoods are at stake because they rely on this transit system. Something has to be done.”

Similar sentiments were shared earlier that day, as Mayor Harris joined MICAH organizers, along with those from the Memphis Bus Riders Union, Memphis City for Independent Living, and MATA as they held a press conference recognizing Transit Equity Day. The dedicated day commemorates civil rights icon Rosa Parks’ birthday.

County leaders said Monday’s discussions are just the beginning, and ultimately the goal is to develop a sound proposal that will enhance Shelby County’s public transit system.

“We’re not here to just put the county seal on MATA,” Wright said. “We are all actually here to make a difference and that’s why we have to look into everything to see what would make a meaningful difference for the people of Shelby County.”

The next transit ad hoc meeting will be Tuesday, Feb. 11 at Hickory Hill Community Center at 5:30 p.m.