I think I experienced a miracle last week. Not only did I ride a double shuttle bus packed with people, I saw a full trolley on the Madison Avenue line.
With everything going on downtown last weekend -- Beale Street Music Festival, Grizzlies playoff games, Redbirds, the symphony -- Memphians actually used public transportation.
Usually when I'm trying to navigate Madison, I pass empty trolleys. And I can't count the number of times I've seen two or three buses traveling south on Front, one right after the other, with only a handful of passengers on each.
But this weekend was a different story. Friday night, it was pouring rain when I boarded the shuttle at the old Baptist Hospital parking lot, and I marveled at both the size and the diversity of the crowd. There were couples headed to the South Main trolley art tour; college students from out of town asking where to eat on Beale; basketball fans wearing their favorite players' jerseys; and poncho-clad music lovers ready to stand in the rain at the music fest.
It was beautiful. I've long wished that we had a public-transportation system that all types of people would use. Not only does it help the environment and traffic congestion, you feel like you're a part of the city.
During a City Council budget hearing last week, MATA officials said the system carries about 12.5 million passengers a year. But only 27 percent of MATA's operating budget comes from fares. Thirty percent comes from federal and state grants and the rest -- 43 percent, about $13 million -- is from the city.
If we're already paying a large portion of the MATA budget through city taxes, shouldn't we use MATA more? Of course, but I'm not sure it's a realistic option for most people. For starters, we don't have a public-transportation culture here. To develop it, we'd either need a system that is more user-friendly or a lot more weekends like the one we just had.
I don't know which option is more unlikely.
MATA's hub system, which requires riders to transfer at North End Terminal, Central Station, or the American Way Transfer Center, was designed to best serve riders' starting points and destinations. For the current ridership, the system is probably as convenient as it can be. The system is seen as a service for people who don't have access to their own transportation, but it could be so much more than that.
MATA's fuel costs increased by 42 percent last year. In order to increase operating revenue, MATA just raised bus fares to $1.40. Since labor costs are 75 percent of MATA's expenses, and that costs the same whether there are five people on a bus or 20, maybe we should be trying to find ways to encourage more people to ride.
On the other hand, the trolley system seems much more friendly, but is it a practical solution for anybody? I thought it might be nice to take the Madison line to music fest this weekend. We didn't have to be at Tom Lee Park at any set time; the weather wasn't too hot or too cold (when it wasn't too rainy, that is); and parking and driving downtown would definitely have been a headache. But my friends thought it would be better to take the shuttle from Baptist instead.
If we didn't take the Madison line last weekend, I'm not sure we ever will.
The logistical problems with the Madison line are well documented, but they're worth remembering as the city looks to future public transportation. Federal funds pay the Madison line's operating costs now, but what happens when those funds run out?
Maybe one day we'll all get on the bus and realize the benefits of riding public transportation. But right now MATA is taking us for a ride whether we like it or not.