"Public transportation is a civil rights issue," said Memphian Laura Sullivan, addressing the crowd gathered at Saturday's town hall meeting of bus users who had come to voice their concerns about the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA).
The event, held at the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) building, was organized by the ad hoc Transportation Task Force, which formed earlier this year to address inequities in the public transportation system.
"Public transportation sits between issues of race and class," said Sullivan, a member of the task force. "Bus routes still reflect Jim Crow laws: Taking domestic workers out east and routes running east to west."
"I simply do not agree with that," said Alison Burton, director of marketing and customer service for MATA. "I'd like to know how they came to that assessment. There hasn't been any dialogue between the [MATA] board and the planners who put the meeting together. Our board members attempted to start some dialogue [at the meeting], but they were cut off."
Complaints ranged from leaky buses to buses arriving two hours late. Overcrowding, poor customer service, reduced routes, fare hikes, and discourteous bus drivers were also listed as persistent problems with MATA's bus service.
Deborah Cunningham of the Memphis Center for Independent Living came to the meeting to get answers about problems disabled Memphians face when using the transit system.
"Riders need answers about why the attitudes of drivers are, 'Why are you riding my bus? Don't you have your own bus?' Meaning, the MATA Plus buses," Cunningham said.
Irving Gonzalez spoke on behalf of a fellow wheelchair user when he asked why bus drivers sometimes refuse to let ramps down for disabled riders.
"[The bus driver] said the [automatic] ramp didn't work, but the ramps can be pulled down and put up manually," Gonzalez said.
Others related how reduced bus routes act as an unofficial curfew.
"Some people work at night and get off when there are no buses running," Teresa Blevins said. "They have to hire someone to take them home, paying most of the money they earned just to get home."
Members of the MATA board were present to address some of the concerns. Board member John Vergos pinned the blame on inadequate funding.
"Route expansion costs money. No one is denying that more service and more routes are necessary," Vergos said. "But we on the board have no authority to raise money. We have no authority to tax anyone."
MATA has brought in consultants to reevaluate the transit system and bus routes throughout the city, Burton said.
In the meantime, organizers like Sullivan aren't planning to sit idly by. Saturday's meeting ended with a call to start a bus rider's union, which would put pressure on the city government to improve transit services. The first meeting of the Memphis Bus Rider's Union is set for Saturday, February 18th, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the AFSCME building at 485 Beale.