Something's missing on Main Street.
Music and the smell of food waft over the Main Street mall's lunchtime crowd. Office workers mill up and down the brick sidewalks, like always. A sign reads: "Pedestrians Yield To Trolley," but for the past few months, the only traffic along the mall has been horse-drawn tourist carriages or the golf cart delivering Aldo's Pizza Pies.
Gone is the familiar rumble of Memphis' vintage trolley cars — the lumbering vehicles that warned pedestrians to get out of the way with a friendly (or unfriendly) toot or ding. The void is unmistakeable, like a missing tooth.
"Fire at any given moment ... "
Two fires — both on the Madison Line — caused a lengthy shutdown of the Memphis trolleys. Trolley 452 caught fire last November 4th on the I-240 overpass just west of Bellevue. Trolley 553 caught fire on April 7th on the Danny Thomas overpass bridge. They were hauled back to the Main Street trolley barn, and the cause of the fires was investigated. Both were burned beyond repair.
Trolley service on the Madison Line was suspended after the April fire. The entire trolley system was shut down on June 11th. That decision came after a a review of the system by industry experts who said unless several corrective actions were taken, "fires will happen again." Furthermore, it was conveyed to Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) management that there could be trolleys currently operating on the lines that "could catch fire at any given moment."
Green hybrid buses have since replaced the trolleys. They run the same routes, except for the Main Street Mall and parts of the Riverfront Loop. Bus ridership is rising, officials say, but lots of Memphians want the trolleys back.
"Disturbing" and "Below Average"
According to an independent report by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), a Washington, D.C.-based industry group, there are two answers to the question: Why did the trolleys catch fire?
One is physical, sparks turned to flames when a power surge hit a faulty electrical system. The other is systemic, years of shoddy maintenance procedures and safety processes had become engrained at MATA.
MATA officials asked the group for an outsider's look at the trolley trouble in Memphis. The response it got was quite technical and also quite harsh.
The trolley system was governed by "deferred, incomplete, or incorrect practices." This brought an "environment of higher risk ... resulting in an escalation in the number of incidents and accidents." The system, according the APTA report, made for unreliable trolleys and, therefore, unreliable trolley schedules. MATA's practices, the report says, were below the average of "today's street railway industry."
There was no person at MATA accredited to train trolley operators or maintainers, the report says. There was no safety manager. Several maintenance tasks could only be done by one person. Scant training records existed to show who had received training on what equipment.
"There appears to be a lack of oversight by management staff to ensure written procedures are being followed," the APTA report says.
Oil covered several areas of "the pit," where the trolleys were repaired, making it slick and dangerous. Worn-out trolley parts were scattered around the trolley maintenance facility on Main Street.
"There are little or no records on repairs done to the cars," the report said.
The records that did exist showed 43 defects on Trolley 553 in the three months before it caught fire in April. Twenty-nine defects were recorded on trolley Number 452 in the three months before it caught fire in November.
There were no manuals on how to maintain the cars' electrical apparatuses or the air systems. The maintenance staff said they didn't know how or where to get them.
"Overall, the panel found this to be disturbing," the report says.
MATA staff interviewed by the panel said they experienced several flashovers, or electrical spark-ups, each year on the trolleys, including one "big" flashover each year. "It would appear that no additional training was provided to the maintenance staff after the fires."
"This means something to me."
Ron Garrison, who has led transit systems in
St. Louis; Tallahassee, Florida; and the Washington, D.C. area, was hired as the director of MATA in July.
His love of trolleys began early, he says, as he rode them growing up in St. Louis. Garrison says the trolleys are important to the vitality of Memphis business as a mobility tool and to tourism as a part of the city's charm. Garrison says he's working hard to get the trolleys back on track.
At 9 a.m., it's almost lunchtime for Garrison. Getting to work early has been part of his routine here. He says he's usually at work by 3:30 a.m. and jokes that he's accidentally scared some of the bus mechanics on those early mornings. MATA's first bus leaves at around
4:45 a.m., and Garrison wants to be on it, because that's where the customers are.
"You go talk to them," Garrison says. "You get on the bus and you ride with them."
Garrison told members of the Downtown Memphis Commission the same thing last month, when asked how he would get feedback from the MATA-riding public.
He then got some laughs when he told the board that he'd have to leave the meeting early because the Memphis Bus Riders Union was picketing a MATA station. The laughs were quickly doused when he told them that enlisting the union's help as a focus group was another way he'd develop MATA's future.
Garrison is buttoned-up but casual, comfortable in a suit and tie but easy with a joke. He's not afraid to admit to city leaders or a scrum of reporters when he does not know the answer to a question.
He styles himself a "pretty easy-going guy" but also notes that "sometimes you gotta get tough, like in the Navy." Garrison received the Naval Achievement Medal for his 10 years of service that ended with him as the head of the HFDF Division of U.S. Naval Intelligence.
After a few years running his own St. Louis insurance company, Garrison started a career in mass transit in 1990 with the St. Louis Metro. Three transit systems and 24 years later, he finds himself in Memphis.
Garrison completely redesigned bus routes in Tallahassee, decentralizing the old hub-and-spoke system there, which made for shorter wait times, more bus routes, and easier transit around the city.
Tallahassee's StarMetro system won the American Planning Association's 2013 award for excellence in public transportation. Upon his resignation from the system in 2013, the editorial board of the daily Tallahassee Democrat said of Garrison's tenure: "... the system works. The city can offer thanks to Mr. Garrison and claim its award with pride."
Garrison says his appreciation for mass transit began at young age. His grandmother couldn't walk and got around using one of the first electric wheelchairs. At that time, Garrison recounts, there was no para-transit. To go someplace, you had to call an ambulance.
"I say that to you, because this means something to me," he says. "I'm not doing this for fun. I'm doing this because I want to do the right thing. I came here because I can feel that this city is changing and doing the right thing."
Vintage trolley cars clattering along old rail lines through the oldest parts of Memphis may seem like some kind of nostalgia-fueled pet project. But, ironically, the city's trolley system puts Memphis years ahead of many other major cities in the U.S.
Streetcar projects are currently underway in Atlanta; Seattle; Milwaukee; Detroit; Cincinnati; Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon; Kansas City, Missouri; Tempe, Arizona; Arlington, Virginia; and Charlotte, North Carolina.
As city cores come back to life across the U.S., downtown residents want to be able to walk, bike, and ride public transportation, and they want to live around others who want the same things. They want an authentic and progressive urban lifestyle.
"Streetcars do more than simply improve mobility," says the website for the Milwaukee Streetcar Project. "By promoting development, raising property values, attracting businesses, and helping to define our contemporary city, streetcars benefit everyone. Streetcars add vitality to an urban setting, increasing commerce and activity around every one of the fixed stations and stops."
Charlotte's project is charged with helping to create "a transit-focused and pedestrian-oriented center city." Tempe says its streetcar project will "increase mobility, strengthen existing neighborhoods and create sustainable development." Atlanta wants a system that "links communities, improves mobility by enhancing transit access and options, supports projected growth, promotes economic development and encourages strategies to develop livable communities."
So far, Portland's streetcar project has led to 140 real estate projects worth $3.5 billion. According to city statistics, property values there rose by 50 percent. After streetcars began running in Seattle, the city saw 3.3 million square feet of new development.
A major difference between many of these projects and the Memphis trolley system are the cars themselves. Most of the Memphis trolleys were built around the 1920s. They are mobile pieces of antique furniture — worn wooden artwork on heavy steel wheels. In contrast, the Atlanta cars are fast (up to 50 miles per hour) and sleek. Similar cars are being used in Los Angeles, Tempe, and Seattle.
The Unpromised Future
So when will Memphis' trolleys come back? Garrison isn't making any promises about it, but three teams of rail and safety experts converged in Memphis last week for another assessment of the trolley system. Once they're finished, a new system plan for the city will be revealed, possibly as early as November. Presumably, a timeline for renewed trolley service will be part of the plan.
In the meantime, Garrison and MATA officials are working to reimagine and build the future of the trolley system. He envisions a more efficient system. He knows that the trolleys rarely ran on time, which was the top complaint from locals.
MATA is also implementing an "intelligent" transportation system that will give real-time information on buses and trolleys. By December, MATA is expected to launch a website and a mobile app that will show customers exactly where its vehicles are and when they'll arrive.
As for the trolleys, another major factor in on-time performance is to keep them from breaking down so often.
"We want our miles, or our hours, between breakdowns to be, and I'm not exaggerating here, at least 20 times better than what it is now," Garrison says. "I know if we don't do that, that'll be the first thing on people's minds."
Garrison says maintenance and safety processes will also be tightened up, adding that a job posting for a dedicated trolley safety manager is forthcoming.
When the trolleys first come back, it won't be with the city's whole fleet of 17. Seven cars — the bigger ones made in Australia — will be the first to roll down Main. "You can get more folks on them," Garrison says. The rest of the cars and routes will be added later, he says.
The price tag for the trolley fix has been cited at between $6 million and $36 million, a huge gap. The estimates were done before Garrison was hired. He says the higher figure probably includes some new equipment and facility upgrades.
The figure definitely includes new trolley cars, and they're not cheap. Vintage trolley cars can cost as much as $1.3 million each and MATA would have to buy 17 of them to replace what it has now.
Does MATA need new trolleys? Garrison says it's a possibility and "one of the first things I looked into." But he says buying new trolleys would require a "community conversation" that could include considering a switch to the kinds of modern streetcars running in other parts of the country. But Garrison is quick to show that he understands why the old trolleys are important.
"The historic trolleys are more open-air; they're nostalgic," he says. "They have a certain sound that is romantic and takes people back to another time. I know many people come just to see the trolleys."
With any luck, they'll be able to see them again in the near future.
South Main business owners not happy about lack of trolleys.
With the trolleys having been gone a full six months, many South Main business owners says they are seeing their sales decline, mainly due to a lack of tourists.
"For the past four years that I've owned a business on South Main, tourists from all over the world would ride the River Loop Trolley, not even knowing that our district was down here," says Anna Avant, owner of Hoot + Louise.
"They would see the district and stop and shop and eat and look around, because the trolleys introduced them to our neighborhood. You just see less traffic down here now, and I can tell you that not one person has gotten off one of those green buses and come into my store."
Lisa Brumleve, manager of business recruitment and retention at the Downtown Memphis Commission says the lack of trolleys has caused a drop in sales for some South Main businesses. "A few of the retailers in South Main have received grants from the Downtown Memphis Commission, so, they have to send me — twice a year — financial statements, and we're looking at about 20 percent down [from one year to the next]," Brumleve says.
Not only are business owners upset about the lack of tourists in the area, store owners like Avant worry that the longer the trolleys are away, the less of an issue it will be to the entire city.
MATA has held various meetings to inform the public on the status of the streetcars. Even after the American Public Transportation Association report was released stating that MATA had failed to properly maintain the trolleys, business owners were hopeful that one or two trolleys could still serve the South Main District.
"There was a town meeting that MATA held when they first shut down the trolleys, and most business owners said they felt good leaving the meeting that one or two trolleys might soon be back," Avant says. "I didn't know that the trolleys weren't coming back this year until I read an article last week. I have not personally heard from anyone at MATA, and I don't expect them to keep in contact with me because I expect them to be working on the trolleys. But it seems like the more time goes by, the more likely it is that people will forget about the trolleys. But I can tell you that no one down here [on South Main] is forgetting."
While there are many businesses on South Main that don't rely on tourists, the exposure the trolleys created helped business. Sarah Worden, owner of the jewelry store Charlotte Ehinger-Schwarz, says the area is more dependent on the trolleys than people might realize.
"My business has been here for 11 years, and my customers have been keeping my business alive during that time, but no one wants to just survive," Worden says. "Having those tourists come in creates more exposure, and it's that little extra business that helps you get ahead. As a business owner you can't ever rely on one segment like tourism, but it sure helps when it's there. I don't know that if I have a down year I could blame it exclusively on the trolleys, but I know that because they are gone that this will probably not be a growth year for my business."
South Main Association President Brian Douglas says he's confident that the neighborhood will continue to grow, citing three businesses that have opened since the trolleys stopped running in April. But Douglas admits that the trolleys were a good way to show off South Main.
"The trolley is iconic in the way that it draws people to this area — something that we just aren't seeing with those green buses," Douglas says. "Before the city started construction on the Chisca Hotel, people would get to that area and not want to go any farther. If they hopped on the trolley, they didn't really have a choice, and once they got to South Main they realized that this area had a lot going on.
"Obviously we all want the trolleys back yesterday, and I think MATA does, as well, because that's more revenue that they could be generating," Douglas says. "Now that we know what went wrong, all we can do is hope to get it right this time. No one wants them to rush the trolleys back into service only to have another fire or something that causes the trolleys to stop altogether because people are afraid to get on them."
Still, South Main business owners feel an integral part of their neighborhood is missing.
"Would I want to leave this area if the trolleys don't come back? Of course not. I love South Main and downtown, but if they don't come back, it's very possible that I would leave this area," Avant says.
"We are getting into what is normally our busiest time of the year, and it's just disappointing. We have staples down here that make the neighborhood what it is. There is the Arcade, the Civil Rights Museum, and Ernestine and Hazels — and the trolleys were what tied all of those things together."