Less than a week after the announced partnership between the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 713 (the local bus drivers' union) and the Memphis Bus Riders Union (MBRU), Congressman Steve Cohen announced that $2.6 million in federal funds, secured through the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT), would be allocated to fund three electric trolleys for downtown Memphis.
Members of the MBRU congregated at their monthly meeting at the Memphis Center for Independent Living said the funding felt like a familiar slap in the face; so familiar, that the funding announcement invoked little surprise, and the discussion quickly refocused to the litany of problems faced by everyday Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) users.
"When you put money [only] downtown where the trolleys are, you're forgetting about your citizens," said Cynthia Bailey, outreach coordinator for MBRU. "You're forgetting about the people who need transportation to get to jobs and destinations."
The narrative of bus riders and drivers drawing attention to unmet transit needs while money continues to pour into the trolley system is hardly new, but with each announcement of trolley funding, members of both unions have become increasingly desperate to look for solutions.
According to both Bailey and Sammie Hunter, MBRU's co-chair, the bus riders' union has little faith left in MATA's CEO and general manager Ron Garrison, who they said showed initial interest in solving MATA's problems but has not followed through with solutions.
"We took his word, but I think he's all about the money instead of the citizens," Bailey said. Hunter nodded in agreement and added, "I never trusted him from the beginning, and now his true colors are coming out. He's not about the citizens."
According to Bailey, if both the MBRU and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 713 (ATU) are able to meet with Mayor-elect Jim Strickland and bypass Garrison, it will be a victory.
"I think [Stickland will] understand us better," Bailey said. "The ATU has experience with the board on the inside, and we have experience from the riders' perspective on the outside. If we're merged together as one organization, it will have a big impact."
Local 713's business manager William Barber not only echoes MBRU's concerns but is also eager that the union merger will erase the long-standing perception of blame-placing that pits the bus drivers against the bus riders.
"What I want our public to realize, is that it's not drivers against the public, it's management against the public," Barber said. "We want everybody to join us, listen to our rally points, get on board with the unions and MATA so we can make this city better for everybody, not just for a certain group of people."
Barber is also quick to point out that he's highly in favor of trolley drivers having jobs. "We want everyone to benefit," Barber said.
Garrison said that he wants to keep an open dialogue with both unions.
"I think to the extent that we can make ourselves available, my staff and I would be happy to sit down with them to work through their concerns. I've tried to meet with them a number of times and have," said Garrison, who noted that there have been no additional funds spent on the trolleys except for specific funds that can only be used on trolleys.
Additionally, the funds recently granted by TDOT could mean that the current buses used in lieu of trolleys on Main could be redistributed to MATA's fleet.
"I welcome anyone to talk to our mayor, and I would be glad to do that with or without them," Garrison said. "I would like to partner with them to get additional funds."