A penny won't buy much of anything these days, but come November 6th, an extra penny may be required for a gallon of gas.
If approved on Election Day, the gas tax referendum will institute a one-cent tax on every gallon of gas pumped in Shelby County.
Memphis city councilman Edmund Ford Jr. proposed the gas tax referendum in hopes of providing $3 million to $6 million annually to the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) to improve its service. For the current fiscal year, the city has cut its contribution to MATA by $250,000.
"MATA, these last four years, has gotten no increment in funding for everything they do," Ford said. "If you look at the budget, the city puts up X amount of money, but it has been cut over time. In cities that have designated funding for public transportation, you'll see that the employment rates are higher than cities that don't have it."
Funding raised through the gas tax will help MATA improve bus routes, maintenance, and infrastructure, as well as purchase new buses and hire more bus drivers. Advocates of the tax hope the improvements will decrease the number of cars on the road.
Despite the benefits that the gas tax could provide if passed, the referendum has its share of opponents. Councilman Jim Strickland cites MATA's unwillingness to implement routes that are easily understood and the tax being regressive as reasons he opposes it.
"Right now, it's extraordinarily confusing to take a bus anywhere, and MATA has refused to [implement] a grid system. For example, if someone wanted to take a bus from point A to point B, [they could] take the bus down Poplar, get off, and take the Danny Thomas," Strickland said. "Also, the tax paid on this gasoline is the same for rich people and poor people, but as a percent of their income, it's much higher for poor people."
The Memphis Bus Riders Union has been a vocal supporter of passing the gas tax. Member Bennett Foster said the gas tax would improve routes such as the 50 Poplar, which he uses often throughout the week.
"During the peak hours of riding the main line, I'm among about 20 other people who can't find a seat because the bus is so packed," Foster said. "I would like to see a system where you only have to wait 15 minutes to get on a bus, and if a bus breaks down, there's one right behind it to pick you up. Other cities enjoy that kind of public transportation. If we're going to be respectful to the working people of our city and make sure that they can get to work on time, find a job, or get to school on time, we have to fix public transportation first because it's a foundational issue. For most poor people, this is the barrier for them to get where they're going in life."
According to the Bus Riders Union, more than 80 percent of the 40,000 riders that MATA serves per weekday are Memphians who have no other means of getting to work. Also, nearly 60 percent of riders have an annual income of $18,000 or less, and 89 percent are African American.
"[The tax] is a very, very small increase on the gas price, and it would generate $3 million to $6 million, which is required to go to public transportation by state law," Ford said. "If you put this in place, you're giving more individuals who are not able to drive an avenue to work, be educated, and feed their families."