After 17 years of riding MATA, Johnnie Mosley thinks the transportation authority is backing itself into a new motto.
"You cannot continue this policy of eliminating bus routes every time there's a situation," he said. "If the MATA board does not take into consideration the darkest impacts of taking bus routes away ... the new motto eventually will be: No Bus Routes. No Bus Service. No Passengers. No Bus Drivers Needed."
Not very catchy, is it? But it gets his point across.
About 43 percent of MATA's operational funding, or $23 million, comes from the city of Memphis. In anticipation of a 4 to 8 percent cut in funding from the city, accompanied by an almost $1.5 million increase in fuel costs for the next year, MATA is cutting personnel, eliminating or consolidating nine bus routes, and changing the frequency of several others.
"In areas where the ridership is not as great, we'll reduce the headway, and passengers may have to wait longer," said William Hudson, president and general manager of MATA. "Transit systems across the country are cutting service and increasing fares."
The route changes, approved this week by MATA's board, will begin in August. Hudson notes that MATA Plus, the service for people with disabilities, won't be affected.
"Cutting your budgets puts you in survival mode. You try to do the best you can. We're not raising fares, because it's counterproductive. When we raise fares, it reduces ridership," Hudson said.
Cutting service is a more complex story. Last year, MATA cut service 4 percent. Before the change, its number of riders per hour per bus was 25. After the cuts, that number went up to 26.
But Mosley, who is chair of the advocacy group Citizens for Better Service, still raises a valid question: If every budget crisis at MATA is met with another reduction in service, where will public transportation in Memphis end up?
It's a question MATA board members and staff are keenly aware of.
"If we continue what we're doing, someday we will have two bus riders and one bus," board member John Vergos said.
In addition to the city's contribution, MATA's revenue stream includes fares, funding from the state, and advertising dollars. But only a quarter of every dollar needed to run MATA comes directly from its riders.
Board members recently discussed the importance of increasing ridership to increase revenue. Unfortunately, it's hard to imagine a scenario where the current service cuts — especially an increase in wait time between buses — would result in more riders.
"People have told me that they would love to ride public transportation," Mosley said. "But getting from one side of town to the other in two hours is not going to work for them."
In all fairness, MATA has shifted its operations somewhat this year. Hudson said they've been trying to fix a route system that, traditionally, has been overly accommodating for some passengers at the expense of the entire system for quite some time.
"We used to have buses go by riders' houses and directly by employment sites," Hudson said. "Now we try to stick closer to main thoroughfares. ... In order to be more efficient, we have to eliminate some of the detours and let [riders] walk to their destinations."
MATA is also eliminating 10-cent transfers as of this week, a move that could be costly for passengers since MATA's system operates around several hubs. As of May 1st, each ride will cost the full $1.50 fare, but MATA hopes passengers will take advantage of its new unlimited-ride daily, weekly, or monthly Fast Passes.
MATA staff members say the Fast Passes increased pre-paid sales 14 percent in January, 24 percent in February, and 41 percent in March from sales in the previous year. It's unclear how the program has affected overall revenue or ridership.
While the Fast Pass is a good start, MATA's long-term plan needs to include other ways to generate more riders and revenue. But how to do that with limited resources?
MATA representatives often talk about how the public transportation authority has no dedicated funding source. The City Council could ask citizens to vote on a referendum to fund public transportation, but MATA hasn't felt it's been the right time to push for that yet.
"At one time, we had a thriving system, because people didn't have to wait an hour on a bus," Hudson said. "We're going to have to find ways to improve our system, but money is an issue."
In the meantime, Mosley said MATA should have asked the city for the money instead of pre-emptively approving service cuts.
"If they don't ask for it, they're guaranteed not to get it. If you ask for it, and you present a strong case, there's a possibility you might get it," Mosley said. "If MATA can't make a strong case for how to fund public transportation in Memphis, no one can."
With additional reporting by Bianca Phillips