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Rolling toward a decision on MATA’s proposed service reductions

Memphis public transportation is at a crossroads. While residents need the service, the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) routes are not profitable with ridership being extremely low.

And unless additional funding is forthcoming by some far-flung miracle, the die is cast and the fate of some bus riders who depend on public transportation looks bleak. The MATA board takes a vote on proposed changes Sept. 27 at 3:30 p.m.

“The checkbook must be balanced,” according to John Lancaster, MATA director of planning and scheduling.

The board must consider route eliminations, reduced frequency of bus runs in certain communities and route mergings for greater efficiency — in all, close to 30 changes are on the table. And from all accounts, the upcoming board vote is a simple formality to make those changes official.

But, say members of the Bus Riders Union (BRU), not so fast. That board meeting at MATA headquarters on 444 N. Main St. is their last-ditch effort to stop route changes and eliminations. They are asking everyone, even appealing to churches, to stand with them during the board meeting.

“We started our Bus Riders Union about six years ago,” said Georgia King, longtime community activist and founder of the Memphis organization. “The union is our voice. People are very nervous about what is going to happen to them when they don’t have a way to get to work, or to the doctor, or the grocery store. This is a cause that everyone should be concerned about, not just those who depend on public transportation. We are our brother’s keeper.”

The Memphis City Council took its first look at cuts in bus service in April. Councilman Edmund Ford Jr. proposed a flat fee be added to all Memphis Light Gas & Water bills to subsidize MATA. Public hearings were scheduled throughout the month of August. Dozens of bus riders told their stories – about how they would lose jobs without bus service.

MATA officials are sympathetic to the plight of their patrons and they want to avoid hurting so many people who are already struggling, but the dollars are just not there.

“John Lancaster is one of the good guys,” said Johnnie Mosley, chairman of Citizens For Better Service. “Something has to be done. We can’t just let people suffer without transportation. People need transportation to live. What are they supposed to do without bus service? We just can’t allow this to happen. These routes must not be eliminated. And what about the people who are disabled? Many take the bus to their doctors’ appointments.”

According to Nicole Lacey, chief communications officer for MATA, no one wants to see the proposed reductions in bus service.

“The Memphis Area Transit Authority is proposing several route service changes that are scheduled for implementation on Nov. 11,” said Lacey. “These changes vary from minor timing adjustments to the elimination of certain routes due to current ridership levels.

“In order to determine the impact on riders, MATA has held eight community meetings across the city to receive as much feedback as possible from customers and other key stakeholders prior to implementing any of the changes. These proposed changes are the result of funding challenges. However, the changes are only proposed at this point, and the MATA team is currently reviewing customer feedback to determine whether all of the changes will be implemented as scheduled.”

According to bus riders, the board meeting is their last chance to be heard. Those who have no ride, union members in wheelchairs, folks who have no other options for transportation and those in the community who stand with them — all are expected to converge on the downtown terminal.

“We are holding rallies to make sure that everyone understands that route eliminations will hurt those who are most in need,” said King.

Mosley concurs, citing areas where changes have been targeted, as areas of the city where many low-income, minority families live.

“You can just look where the cuts and changes are being proposed — routes going through Boxtown, Whitehaven, New Chicago, Westwood, Northaven — we don’t need cuts, we need service in more of these communities, especially from MATA Plus.

“That’s the bus sent out to pick up disabled individuals. When there is no fixed, regular route in these areas, MATA Plus cannot be sent out to pick up handicapped riders. This is of great concern to us.”

Charles Johnson, a volunteer at the VA Hospital who retired in 2012, is an outreach coordinator for the Memphis BRU.

“The proposed cutting of routes hurts poor, black families most,” said Johnson. “They are trying to completely eliminate service to Northaven. And the success or failure of a city partly rests on the efficacy of its public transportation. Without it, many Memphians will be essentially paralyzed in terms of being able to move around the city. We have to fight these changes.”

Sammie Hunter, a BRU co-chair, knows firsthand what the proposed route cuts will mean.

“These cuts will only make working that much more difficult,” he said. “I am trying to keep my employment. I have to walk a long distance to reach the bus stop. But if there are no buses coming, I have no idea of what to do. We need the number 46-Whitehaven.”

Mosley said early on that he had one solution to the problem. Instead of cutting bus service, maybe MATA might consider filing bankruptcy.

“Government entities file Chapter 9. They do it all the time. They reorganize and they come back stronger. It happened in Detroit, Mich., Stockton, Ca., Jefferson City in Alabama. There has to be another answer. The dollars are not there. I get it. Cut down on the administrative budget, streamline, do a hiring freeze, eliminate travel and other non-essential expenses. Don’t make those pay who are least able to survive these cuts. Don’t make them pay because MATA is short of funding.

“We’ll be down there on the 27th. We’ve got to make them hear us. We’ve got to stop these changes. This fight is far from over. We are out of options. There is nothing else to be done.”

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