It’s a matter of MATA’s future

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Memphis is experiencing a “slow-moving self-reinforcing decline in transit, which could be called a vicious cycle of declining ridership and service.”

That picture emerges from the Transit Vision Choices Report prepared by Jarrett Walker + Associates and released on the Memphis 3.0 web portal on Monday.

And while Memphis is not the only city that has had such an experience, the report makes this stark assertion: “The danger is that, if it is not halted, transit will decline into irrelevancy.”

Enter Memphis 3.0. The Transit Vision Choices Report grows out of that “comprehensive planning process.”

Jarrett Walker is a consultancy group tapped (and paid) to come up with a transit vision. Reaching out to the firm was the quartet of the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA), the Memphis-Shelby County Division of Planning and Development, Innovate Memphis and the Metropolitan Planning organization.

Public input in various forms is being sought in advance of a spring 2018 unveiling of Jarrett Walker’s “short-term recommended transit network and long-term recommendations.”

As for that vicious cycle of declining ridership and service, the Choices Report says evidence is the levels of ridership and service hours. From 2005 to 2015, MATA cut service by 22 percent and ridership dropped 28 percent.

Cycle contributors

Residential and job growth. According to the report, the region has grown slowly in population and jobs but more quickly in developed land area. And most new developments are nowhere near the transit network or each other. If a significant population uptick were triggered, Memphis could move into a larger-regions category, with MATA getting a smaller bucket of federal funds.

Meanwhile, the Jarrett Walker firm says, it costs more to provide transit for the new development because they are lower density and far away.

“Service is cut, frequencies are reduced so that routes can be lengthened, and ridership drops predictably,” the report reads.

• Cost increases. “The costs to MATA of delivering each hour of transit service has increased. Federal, state and city contributions have, in most years, not kept up with inflation. MATA is able to put less service on the street, and ridership drops predictably.”

• Federal funding cuts. “MATA’s share of federal funding has been reduced because ridership has dropped so much. Service is cut, and ridership drops again, predictably.”

.• Development continues away from the existing network. “Because the transit network is useful to fewer and fewer people, there has been no incentive for developers and businesses to locate on it. More growth happens in places that are hard to serve with useful transit.”

Is there a way out; a way to progress?

“One purpose of this transit vision is to arrest this cycle of decline,” the Transit Vision Choices Report consultants write. “This means breaking the cycle of disinvestment, loss of usefulness and loss of ridership that has been happening in Memphis in recent decades.”

Next steps

The Memphis 3.0 Transit Vision Plan has several steps, with the Transit Vision Choices Report as step one. Next comes the phase of input on key choices set out in the report. That means taking in feedback from the public, stakeholders and officials.

Later, a study team will be tasked with coming up with “some illustrative future alternatives.” The idea is that such alternatives will “help people see how pursuing different goals would require very different transit networks, and imagine how those different networks would affect them and the people they care about.”

The desired result is a “spectrum of choices, so that people can tell us where, in the range of potential futures, they think the Memphis transit network should be.”

(To read the Transit Vision Choices Report online, visit: http://bit.ly/2xG57NW.)