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Bus Money

Grass-roots group seeks additional funding for public transportation.

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Memphian Marian Bacon says the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) could use a little extra funding to train bus drivers on better manners.

"The driver on my way here today was very rude. I had to practically beg him to lower the lift for me," said Bacon, who has a disability and requires the lift to get onto the bus.

Bacon and a handful of other bus users shared concerns about MATA's service at a public meeting at the Ruth Tate Senior Center in South Memphis last week. Hosted by the Coalition for Accessible Transportation, the meeting was the first of four designed to push for additional funding to improve MATA service.

Other concerns described at the meeting included long commute times on city buses, bus stops located too close together, dirty buses, and a difficult-to-navigate route system.

"You almost need a degree in MATA to get around town," said University of Memphis grad student Ace Madjlesi.

The coalition, which meets monthly at the Memphis Center for Independent Living (MCIL) office in Midtown, has been around for years, but its focus has switched from accessible transportation for people with disabilities to public support for a possible new tax to fund better MATA service.

Currently, MATA has an operating budget of $54.7 million, which comes from a mixture of city, state, and federal funds. The city of Memphis contributes 43 percent, while the state contributes 15 percent, and the federal government gives 23 percent. Passenger fares pay for the remaining 19 percent.

Except for bus fares, the rest of MATA's budget is subject to yearly cuts as city, state, and federal governments trim their budgets. Unlike in many other large cities, MATA does not have a source of dedicated funding, such as a tire tax, gas tax, or other reliable funding stream.

"Dedicated funding isn't subject to budget cuts," said Randy Alexander, a community organizer for MCIL. "They could add a half-cent gas tax in the city, and then they could figure out with projections based on the overall economy how much money MATA would have from year to year."

MATA does receive some funding from federal grants, but the agency is only allowed to use that money for capital expenses, such as buying buses or constructing buildings. Dedicated funding could be used for operational expenses, like improving routes and hiring drivers.

MATA spokesperson Alison Burton said the administration fully supports the coalition's push for dedicated funding. She said MATA has been trying to gain an additional, reliable funding stream for years to allow for better bus service and other enhancements.

"A permanent, reliable source of funding would allow us to do better planning for our future," Burton said. "If you look at one of our maps, you'll see we have quite a bit of coverage, but then when you look at scheduling, it's not as attractive to meet the full needs of people who might be considering using public transportaion."

Any additional tax on citizens would have to be approved by the Memphis City Council, and then the measure would go to a voter referendum.

The Coalition for Accessible Transportation will hold three more meetings on the issue: April 6th at the North Memphis Douglass Community Center; April 20th at the Bartlett Municipal Center; and May 11th at Germantown's Great Hall and Conference Center."

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