The Shelby County Commission approved a $2.5 million allocation in CIP (capital improvement plan) funds to the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) last week, which the agency plans to invest in three projects.
Since then, many, including representatives of the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH) who have played a prominent role in the conversation about transit funding, have lauded the commission for making the investment. MICAH leaders said now, and as the regional economy begins to heal, a public transit system is critical.
Justin Davis of the Memphis Bus Riders Union (MBRU) expressed similar sentiments, saying the group is “happy to see the county stepping up to help fund MATA, especially in times like these.”
CEO of MATA Gary Rosenfeld told the county commission that the agency plans to use the funds to implement a demand-response system in the entertainment district and the Westwood/Boxtown area, a mini-transit station near Third and Brooks, and an investment in the Bus Rapid Transit project. All three projects are in line with MATA’s Transit Vision Plan.
Davis said the MBRU supports MATA’s proposal of a demand-response system in Boxtown/Westwood, as the area has been a big focus of the group for a while.
Davis said if the demand-response model is successful and has community support in Boxtown/Westwood, then MATA should consider using that model in other low-density neighborhoods that don’t have frequent service, like Northaven.
Rosenfeld said he expects to see the demand-response system introduced in the entertainment district and in Boxtown/Westwood before the end of the year. Moving forward, Rosenfeld said, MATA is “embracing the new transit paradigm” and will consider implementing this service and other forms of alternative transit models in the future in additional neighborhoods. The Transit Vision plan calls for alternate forms of transportation in about six areas with low ridership density.
Another project MATA plans to invest in, the $75 million Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, mostly funded by federal grants, will be a high-frequency route from Downtown to the University of Memphis.
Davis said many MBRU members are “deeply concerned” about continued investments in Midtown and Downtown, as these areas already have the most reliable bus service.
“It’s vital that MATA starts filling in the huge gaps in their infrastructure in places like North, South, and Southeast Memphis so that riders in those places can stay connected to their basic necessities and get higher quality service,” he said.
However, Rosenfeld said the project is federally funded and needs continued local support in order to maintain federal match dollars. He also said that it will benefit a number of bus riders, not just those living in Midtown and Downtown.
“It’s a community development project that will enhance the opportunities for any bus rider whose ride intersects with the BRT,” he said. “The BRT will improve their connection time and improve their access to jobs within the corridor. Although I understand the Bus Riders Union’s concerns, we can’t just turn our back on a project that we have received funding for on the federal level.”
Rosenfeld added that MATA is not investing in this project on a whim, but that the project was previously selected out of 26 alternate transit projects. The BRT is “well thought-out plans tested against formulas to make sure the federal government gets the maximum return on its investments and that our community gets the maximum return on local dollars.”
He noted that based on the design of the BRT, ridership is likely to increase by between 25 and 50 percent. “There aren’t a lot of other routes in our network or alignments that would even come close to that increase in ridership.”
The BRT project is currently in the development phase. Rosenfeld said he anticipates the service coming online in late 2023 or early 2024.