The fight to save bus routes in Memphis began to heat up in August.
That’s when Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) officials released details of proposed route cuts and drastic schedule changes in response to inadequate fiscal resources.
And then, a miracle – or so it seemed.
Government sources fund MATA, and there was reportedly no more money. Not from the city or county, and definitely not from the federal government. But $2.5 million from the city appeared just in time, and “devastating” cuts were averted. At least for now, advocates say.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and MATA CEO Gary Rosenfeld headed a delegation to Washington D.C. to lobby for money for a rapid-transit bus connecting Downtown Memphis with the University of Memphis. Strickland met with Boxtown Community residents near the end of September and promised to save their bus route. The city’s last-minute funding delivered.
Johnnie Mosley, chairman of Citizens for Better Services, attended a Tuesday morning meeting of the MATA board, who voted to reduce frequency of buses on nine routes, geographical changes in five routes, and 13 other minor time adjustments in other routes.
Only the 47 Shelby Farms Park was eliminated – and even that only a year-long experimental pilot. Those buses remained virtually empty from its inception.
“I told the MATA board that while we appreciate all the routes being saved, we are concerned moving forward to the next fiscal year,” Mosley said. “Cuts should be made in administration, not on the backs of poor people, the ones who can least afford it.”
Acting Board Chair John Vergos assured Mosley and other advocates that the board is operating MATA on the barest of resources.
“Mr. Mosley may be a little hard on us, but that’s okay,” Vergos said, “I believe the board feels comfortable that the budget is as low as it can be to maintain the services we presently have.”
Mosley said he and the Memphis Bus Riders Union (MBRU) will continue to look for additional funding for next year.
“I have said to this board before: ‘Take your cut from the top,’” he said. “Cut out the travel budget. Leave out the workshops out of town you just come back and make a report on.
“The routes were saved, but some are being cut short. Those who get off late are stranded. These are tax payers, and they have a right to a public transportation that truly addresses their needs.”
These new changes go into effect on Sunday, Dec. 9. And MBRU officials still think the changes could still increase hardship on bus riders who depend on the buses for all their transportation.
“I remember a time when buses ran about 15 minutes apart, no longer than 20 minutes,” said Cynthia Bailey, one of four MBRU co-chairs. “But service has been cut over the years, and it’s just not meeting our needs.
“I ride the 19 Vollintine, and that route now stops at 6:15 p.m. If I have a late meeting, I have to walk. It’s dark. It’s dangerous. Not just for me, but for other riders who are elderly and mothers with small children. We are tax payers. We have the right to be served adequately. We have the right to be safe.”
Sammie Hunter, another MBRU co-chair, spends five hours a day roundtrip taking the buses to work.
“It takes me 2 ½ hours to get to work,” said Hunter. “By the time I get there, I’m so exhausted just expending the energy to get there. Before the drastic cuts back in 2013, it took me between 35-45 minutes to get to work. Now we’ve got to wait and see what these new schedule cuts will bring.”
But she is relieved that the cuts were not as harsh as initially proposed.
“Those cuts would have been devastating,” Hunter said. “I was concerned about my job, just as many others I know were. It shouldn’t be this way. We should be able to travel on the bus with ease as tax payers.”
While there is concern that budget issues will crop up every year, MBRU and advocates are hopeful that the county will come up with a dedicated source of funding for MATA.
“When Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris was on the city council, he found $800,000 additional funding, and we have met with him recently,” said Hunter. “I believe he will give MATA funding priority because he understands. When we spoke with him, he expressed concern about the many FedEx employees who get off from the hub in the early morning hours and don’t have a way home. So we believe he really understands our concerns and will do his best to remedy the situation.”
Mosley asked the board to continue to look for administrative cut opportunities.
“If Memphis is going to be a world-class city, our public transportation system must reflect that quality,” he said. “We must work together to rebuild MATA to serve those who really need it, not budget restraints. We’ve got to do better.”