Fare is free on all MATA service vehicles until April 30. MATA also is offering prorated refunds to fixed-route bus customers who purchased 7-or 31-day passes prior to the start of temporary free fares on March 25. Customers eligible to receive a refund must show either the pass or receipt that was purchased from March 17-24 and visit the William Hudson Transit Center (located at 444 North Main) from 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. on April 2-4 to receive their refund. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)(Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

After working a 10-hour shift at a local chemical processing company, Camara Slappy was forced to walk more than an hour to get home.

Camara Slappy (Courtesy photo)

The normal 40-minute route from his North Memphis home to his Downtown employer had turned into an almost two-hour commute after changes to the Memphis Area Transit Authority’s schedule amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

“I hope I don’t have to do this tomorrow,” he said between deep breaths as he spoke to The New Tri-State Defender during his lengthy trek home, Monday. “But I don’t know.”

Last week, MATA announced that it would reduce its services beginning March 30 until further notice. The changes were due to the number of businesses across the city that have closed under executive orders issued Mayor Jim Strickland and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris.

As of Monday — during Slappy’s commute — MATA was operating on a Sunday schedule daily for fixed-route bus services, along with a few additional routes to essential services.

However, changes were made Tuesday evening when the public transit company announced it will add buses to key routes in an effort to lessen wait times. The changes are set to take place Wednesday (April 1).

“This process is evolving as we continue to hear from customers,” said MATA’s Chief Communications Officer Nicole Lacey. “We began the initial changes March 30, but we will continue to adjust as we garner feedback.”

Lacey acknowledged that the addition of buses is not a perfect solution – emphasizing that MATA was already financially struggling before the COVID-19 outbreak.

In February, the Shelby County Commission voted to allot at least $1 million of the Capital Improvement (CIP) budget to transit every year.

Still, MATA officials, along with County Mayor Harris, have asked for additional funds for more resources, including additional buses.

Shelby County Commissioners are expected to take on the issue during Wednesday’s (April 1) committee meetings.

In the meantime, MATA leaders hope the addition of buses will alleviate some riders’ issues.

Passengers, who can now ride free, enter buses at the rear as an additional safety precaution. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

The transit service will begin staging buses at the William Hudson, Airways and American Transit Centers to quickly serve more customers like Slappy, who may be left waiting due to the new 10-passenger limit in compliance with social distancing guidelines.

Officials said by using this process, wait times should lessen greatly and MATA operators should be able to respond faster.

For Slappy, the announcement came too late to make his Monday any better. He was number 11 in line. As a result, he wasn’t able to get on the bus, prompting his long walk home.

“I know we have to practice safety. I understand that, but there should have at least been another bus to come shortly after it,” he said. “Because of the new schedule I knew it wouldn’t come until the next day. So that’s why I began walking.”

Under the Sunday schedule, buses arrive once every hour, with most of the last bus routes ending between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m.

For bus riders like Slappy, the need for MATA is essential. It’s his primary means of transportation. The 25-year-old college student and full-time worker said he depends on it to get to and from work and school.

“If I didn’t get on the bus, I would have to go door-to-door to my neighbors to ask people to take me to work or school, and it’s not easy to find someone to do that, especially now because people are trying to be safe because of the coronavirus.”

Cynthia Bailey, an organizer for the Memphis Bus Riders Union, hopes MATA makes more adjustments sooner than later before people lose their jobs due to lack of transportation.

“I’m concerned about the inconvenience this causes bus riders,” she said, adding that she’s a longtime MATA rider.

“I’ve been riding public transportation for 28 years, and this Sunday schedule isn’t going to work. I get that they need to cut back, but they should reconsider how it’s affecting riders.

“I just hope people can get to where they need to go and don’t lose their jobs or can’t make it to an appointment because there is no bus available.”

MATA officials have asked employers to take into consideration the changes in bus services.

“We are doing everything that we can do with the resources that we have” Lacey said. “And we will adjust as we can, based on the needs of our riders.”

With the possibility of an extension of the “Safer at Home” executive orders, Slappy has adjusted his schedule, waking up two hours earlier each morning, hoping that it will increase his chances of getting a bus to and from work.

The transportation situation is far from ideal, but Slappy said he’s glad that he has a job when thousands of others in the city and county are being laid off.

“I’m grateful and just have to focus on God,” he said. “But I am concerned about being able to take care of a child, my livelihood and where my future is going.

“The coronavirus has put a halt on my plans. And right now, I just need to make sure I can get to work so I can keep my job. I’m glad that at least the buses are still running.”