Crumbling sidewalks, underfunded public transit, and disconnected bike lanes were at the top of the list for Memphians who attended a public forum at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library last week to discuss the transportation needs of the city.
"We need to keep the role of the government in mind," said Dennis Lynch, the transportation chair for the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club, which hosted the discussion. "If the things we're doing aren't for the people, they aren't the right things. We need to push for the things we think we need."
Attendees brainstormed various ideas to alleviate what many believe is a situation in dire need of a solution. Among the proposals: buses that run on time and to more locations on a frequent schedule; sidewalks and streets that are safe for all citizens; more availability to rent tandem bicycles; for Congressman Steve Cohen to support the local allocation of federal funds and allow more local power over how those funds are spent; and to install more parking meters to encourage people to use public transit as a way to save money.
Lynch said the input would be taken to Mayor Jim Strickland, the Memphis City Council, the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA), and the Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Broken, uneven sidewalks and missing curb ramps leave those like Steve Collins, who is disabled and relies on his wheelchair and public transportation, at a disadvantage.
Collins' route is contained to Poplar, where he's pinpointed at least 19 "problem spots." At Poplar and White Station, Collins said there are four corners and only two curb cuts, which forces him to travel into the street.
The issue of damaged sidewalks is not so black and white. In Memphis, property owners are responsible for sidewalk repair. A 1967 city law states that owners of properties abutting any public street are "required to provide and maintain adjacent to his or her property a sidewalk." The city has made efforts to assist low-income residents, but the problem is still open-ended for Memphians like Collins.
"We have met with the city about this, and they tell us that it is the state's problem because [Poplar] is a state highway," Collins said. "The state says it is a city problem because it is Poplar Avenue. My question is this: If I die at that intersection, where does my widow send the bill for the funeral?"
Kyle Wagenschutz, bicycle and pedestrian program manager for the city of Memphis, said obstacles within funding resources, or the lack thereof, can leave "some things waiting in the wings." Bike lanes, for instance, are routinely added as streets are repaved. However, the city will soon begin construction on a grant-funded project to update more roads with bike lanes.
"These are all roads that are not being repaved but that new bike lanes are going to be installed without repaving," Wagenschutz said. "All of those were chosen based on the idea of connecting the missing pieces and missing segments of the network."
Developing dedicated sources to fund MATA is key, said Suzanne Carlson, Innovate Memphis' transportation and mobility project manager.
"There's a lack of funding to go around," Carlson said. "Right now, [MATA] goes to city council and [receives] federal funds. Some are guaranteed, and some are competitive that they might not get every year."
Though they have continually received budget cuts over the last few years, MATA President Ron Garrison said they are "in the process of rebuilding MATA." After the 2010 census numbers were released, MATA lost upwards of $1.6 million dollars in federal funding as well as some state funding. But this fiscal year, they have a "tiny bit of money" left over, Garrison said. Additionally, Garrison said MATA is implementing new ideas such as partnering with Uber and TransLoc.
"Over the next two years, you're going to see tremendous improvements," Garrison said. "Over the next five years, we can make MATA a great transit system again. We're fixing on-time performance, changing the culture, and correctly funding our facilities, buses, and transit stops so that our customers have a very positive experience."