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MATA's Moment of Truth

At $4.52 a gallon for diesel, the gas crisis hits Memphis Area Transit Authority like a runaway bus.

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"Dump The Pump" day came and went last week. The Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) acknowledged the event — held to encourage people to ride public transportation — with an ad on its website and some free cookies at three bus stations. Now it's back to business as usual.

For motorists coping with $4-a-gallon gas, that means either driving less, paying more, walking, setting up a car pool, or riding a bicycle (see Put the Pedal to the Mettle).

Mass transit, unfortunately, is not really an option. Although light rail has been talked and studied nearly to death — most recently in a 2005 report that pegged the price of an eight-mile line from downtown to the airport at $404 million — MATA officials say the earliest it could happen is 2015, and the cost would be much more.

While the agency has been dreaming of the transit system of the future, the oil crisis of 2008 has jolted Americans like a runaway bus. On Monday, MATA's board learned that the contracted price for diesel fuel for the next year, starting in August, will be $4.52 a gallon, compared to $2.87 for this year's contract. The result is likely to be higher fares and reduced services at a time when MATA already is criticized for a lackluster effort to boost its efficiency and ridership.

"We do not have an efficient transit system here," says Martha Lott, administrator for the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which plans future transportation projects for the region. "People have a hard time understanding the system. We don't have a 'blue line' or a 'red line.' It needs to be more user-friendly."

In compiling its long-range transportation plan in March, the planning organization found that citizens wanted MATA to offer more direct routes.

To make MATA attractive enough so that people cut back on using their cars, Lott says, "it's got to be efficient for people to get to their destination, and it's got to be cost-effective."

Eight years ago, Mayor Willie Herenton and MATA president and general manager Will Hudson spoke at a kickoff meeting for a regional light-rail committee. The price of gas was about $1 a gallon at the time, and light rail was supposed to cut traffic congestion and boost economic development. Since then (see time line at bottom) light rail has gained little momentum. The project lurched to a halt when neighborhood groups got a look at it, inched ahead with completion of the Madison Avenue trolley line in 2004, and is currently stalled once again while MATA recalculates its ridership projections. Inflation could drive the cost to more than $1 billion if the initial leg is ever built.

"The cost is so astronomical it is hard for people to get beyond that," Hudson says. "But light rail is a viable option for this community."

It's little wonder that light rail has generated so little excitement. The airport-downtown line would serve only a small fraction of the residents of greater Memphis, a low-density metro area of more than 300 square miles. The train trip would take 29 minutes from beginning to end and make 10 stops. A car can make it in less than 15 minutes. Most customers would have to drive their cars to a light-rail station.

Consultants have estimated the rail line would result in 6,000 more "boardings" than one of the no-build options, but counting transit riders is as inexact as counting website visitors. A boarding occurs every time someone gets on a vehicle, so a passenger who makes a round trip with a transfer each way counts as four boardings. MATA estimates there are 40,000 boardings a day on its buses and trolleys.

The same 2005 report that pegged the cost of the first leg of a light-rail line at $404 million said a no-build option called "transportation system management," or TSM, would boost ridership nearly as much, do it quicker, and cost just $8 million. TSM includes express buses and vans serving both city and suburbs, clearer schedules, park-and-ride lots, a special route serving the airport terminal and FedEx, smaller suburban bus terminals, and shorter waiting times.

Faced with declining ridership before this year's fuel scare, MATA's innovations have been tentative. Last year, MATA added four hybrid electric vehicles to its fleet of 198 coaches. The buses, which carry 23 passengers, cost about $110,000 each. MATA officials say lower-than-expected fuel savings have been offset by a generally positive reaction from riders. Marketing director Alison Burton says one enthusiastic customer told her, "They have these in Atlanta. I didn't know they had them in Memphis." MATA plans to order 10 more next year.

Most buses, however, are the standard smoke-belching, ads-on-wheels, diesel-powered variety and run well below capacity. The computerized trip planner and the printed route system can be difficult to decipher.

According to MATA's online trip planner, riders wanting to travel from Kirby Parkway and Poplar Avenue to Wolfchase Galleria even in peak hours need to take bus number 50 from Poplar Avenue in Germantown to the North End terminal in downtown Memphis. Then they need to transfer to the Wolfchase New Brunswick bus to go east to the mall.

The estimated travel time for that route is two hours and 24 minutes. By car, that same trip might take 20 minutes. Hudson and Fox say there is a direct bus from Germantown to Wolfchase Galleria in the morning and late afternoon, but the trip planner doesn't reflect that option.

Potential riders looking at MATA's overall system map to determine a route might find that difficult, as well. The map doesn't denote bus stops. And when express service is available, it is sometimes offered only once a day, due to costs and low ridership.

"We tend to put our resources where the most people use them," says MATA's chief planner, Tom Fox. "We used to run all-day service on Germantown Parkway, but we have gradually cut back service to the bare bones."

Does bare-bones service cause low ridership or does low ridership cause bare-bones service?

Tellingly, even MATA leadership does not seem convinced that public transit is truly for everyone. For a recent board meeting at Central Station, board members were encouraged to ride the bus and trolley as a sort of experiment. But Hudson says the agency does not require employees or board members to periodically take the bus as a practical matter or as a way to assure quality. And he personally doubts that most people are ready to change their driving habits.

"I don't think the cost of fuel is high enough now that people are saying 'I am going to park this car and go to public transit.' But I think it is going to get there."

MATA president Will Hudson - BY JUSTIN FOX BURKS

He may well be correct. A poll released last week by Steven Ethridge as part of the "Sustainable Shelby" program found that gas would have to hit $4.75 a gallon before drivers decide to carpool and $6.12 a gallon before they would consider riding MATA.

But Ethridge also found that while 62 percent of survey respondents said they would prefer to drive alone to work or school, 92 percent of them actually do so. Which means that MATA should have an opportunity to persuade nearly 30 percent of the population to ride mass transit.

Even more striking, almost 80 percent of the respondents said they would like to ride a light-rail train if one were available.

The plain fact is, MATA is an old-fashioned bus system that operates safely and reasonably reliably for its basic constituency of daily riders who either don't own a car or choose not to drive one. As a conduit for state and federal funds ($15.3 million for operations last year and more than $300 million in capital costs for trolley and light-rail lines completed or on the boards), MATA depends on those juicy morsels of federal pork called "earmarks." When it lurches into long-range planning, MATA has yielded to the wishes of politicians, consultants, architects, and contractors with a vested interest in big-ticket construction projects such as light rail, the trolley, and intermodal hubs suitable for building one's legacy.

MATA's recent follies are well known. The $58 million Madison Avenue Trolley Line opened in 2004 connects downtown with a forlorn section of Midtown two miles away. The phantom MATA terminal at the FedExForum parking garage, where state and federal transportation funds were used — at best negligently and at worst illegally — was only of benefit to the Memphis Grizzlies. And the south downtown terminal behind Central Station, envisioned as a grand intermodal hub for trains, taxis, trolleys, and buses, has instead found its calling as a summer farmer's market.

"MATA is not a perfect system in any way," Hudson concedes. "It is a work in progress."

The Main Street Trolley Line, he says, has increased ridership and has been copied by other cities. There are plans to make the south bus terminal a destination point like the north terminal.

As a bus system, MATA reflects its leadership. Hudson was a bus driver for 14 years and joined MATA in 1964. He is the senior member of Herenton's executive team, serving as MATA president since 1993. The MATA board is appointed by the city mayor, although there are plans to involve the county and suburban mayors more. It has been chaired for several years by Ray Holt, Herenton's old associate at Memphis City Schools and successor as superintendent. Herenton's special assistant, Pete Aviotti, is head of the light-rail committee.

With the uncertainties of $4.52 gas, tight budgets, and a declining Memphis population, the grand vision of a light-rail line from downtown to the airport is by no means a sure thing. Nor does it necessarily make sense.

"Memphis is not a high-density market, so it's pretty difficult to make the numbers work, but I don't want to prejudge them," says Larry Cox, head of the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority.

The project is premised on easing traffic congestion, improving neighborhoods, and sparking development near the rail line. Connection to the FedEx sorting hub is also thrown out occasionally, but suffice it to say that if FedEx, with 35,000 area employees, really wanted a light-rail line, it would be well under way by now.

The other rationales can be easily debunked. Traffic congestion was eased by widening Interstate 240 and the Midtown interchange. It will be further reduced if people drive only when they have to. Except for a fledgling neighborhood called the Edge, Madison Avenue looks even more desolate since the trolley line was built. Ironically, the one big-bucks development MATA might have partially claimed credit for is off the line. In 2006, MATA's board killed the so-called Fairgrounds Alternative and shifted the proposed airport line from Midtown and East Parkway to Lamar and Airways. A year later, developers secured more than $100 million in state Tourism Development Zone funds for the fairgrounds.

Eight years have gone by since the kickoff meeting for the light-rail project. "If I didn't believe in it, I don't think I could sell it," Hudson says. He and Fox call it a "100-year investment" that will require only 25 percent local funding "and that is almost a worst-case scenario."

Until 2015, airport employees working the overnight shift must catch the last incoming bus at 8 p.m., despite pleas for a 10 p.m. bus.

"We have talked to MATA, but they are faced with a situation where there is not enough ridership," says Cox, adding that a new intermodal hub at Brooks and Airways, shared by MATA and Greyhound, should help both employees and visitors when it opens next year.

Had MATA chosen the no-build alternative five years ago, such improvements might already be in place. Consultants from the Parsons Brinckerhoff firm said express bus service to the airport and a new airport circulator route would boost transit boardings 20 percent for less than $8 million. The estimates for light rail: a 25 percent boost at roughly 50 times the cost.

If $4 gas is not quite the tipping point for shifting from cars to public transportation, it could at least be the tipping point for MATA to change its priorities. If Memphians are not ready to dump the pump, they may be ready to dump the pipe dream.

MATA At a Glance

• Operating budget: $48.7 million

• Local share of operating budget: $19.6 million

• Base bus fare: $1.50 plus zone charges for suburbs

• Bus drivers: 274

• Trolley operators: 37

• Average annual pay of drivers: $41,000

• Total vehicles: 198

• Hybrid electric buses: 4

• Trolley cars: 19

• Cost of diesel fuel: $4.52 per gallon

• Number of daily boardings: 40,000

• Gas usage, in gallons per year: 2 million gallons

Slow Track: A MATA Time line

1992: Willie Herenton takes office as mayor.

1993: Will Hudson, a career MATA employee, is named president and general manager of MATA.

1993: The Main Street Trolley Line is completed using Interstate 40 substitution funds.

1998: Gas is selling for an average price of 90 cents a gallon.

2001: Herenton and Hudson kick off a committee to study light rail.

2001-2002: MATA holds public meetings on a proposed light-rail line from downtown to Memphis International Airport.

2004: MATA opens a two-mile trolley line along Madison Avenue for $58 million.

2005: MATA consultants estimate the cost of a 8.7-mile airport line at $404 million, including $94 million for design and management and $283 million for construction.

2006: FedExForum parking garage is the focus of a federal investigation of misuse of MATA funds.

2006: MATA board members kill proposed fairgrounds route for rail line to the airport.

2008: Average price of gas exceeds $4 a gallon.

2015: Earliest completion date of rail line.

See also "Put the Pedal to the Mettle" by Alicia Buxton

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