The number 56 MATA bus, carrying nine passengers, rocks eastward on Union Avenue on its way to Perkins and American Way, past gas stations where the posted price changes before our eyes from $2.69 to $2.99 to $3.09 to the flexible $3.-9.
For MATA, the good news is that the transit agency is under contract to buy diesel fuel for $1.21 per gallon for most of 2005. The bad news is that the price will probably be close to $2 in 2006, the bus gets four miles a gallon, and the capacity is 40 passengers.
"I'm nervous," admits MATA president and general manager Will Hudson.
The trip from downtown to the old Mall of Memphis takes 75 minutes this Thursday afternoon and costs $1.40. At times it is speedy, other times jerky and teeth-jarring. Carrying an open beverage is a wet adventure.
For people like Jeff, a medical assistant at Methodist Hospital, MATA's 56 bus is a lifeline. He lives in Hickory Hill, and by the time he transfers, the trip to work takes an hour and 45 minutes. When his shift ends at 11:15 p.m., he gets a ride home with his brother. For Jerrica, a student at Middle College High School downtown, a one-hour MATA commute on 56 and number 19 at 6:40 a.m. and 2:20 p.m. is a standard part of her school day.
Mass transit has not caught on with the Memphis masses. MATA claims 40,000 rides a day -- a 6 percent increase from a year ago but down from 100,000 daily rides in 1980 when there were 13 more routes. Few public officials, professionals, or power brokers are MATA customers. It is too soon to tell whether $3.29 gas will change that, but as gas-guzzling vehicles roar by with one or two occupants, it seems unlikely.
MATA must cover a metro area of 300 square miles and do it day and night, seven days a week. To a casual observer, its one-size-fits-all approach seems inefficient and wasteful. But MATA says the system average is 24 passengers per hour per bus, and some routes are full all day. There are 90 to 150 buses on the road, depending on time of day. MATA keeps its buses, which cost $275,000, for 12 years. Hudson says the biggest operating cost is the driver, "so if you have to add a driver you double your cost."
MATA buys fuel, mostly diesel, on a one-year contract. A year ago it paid 85 cents a gallon. The current price is $1.21 a gallon, and last Wednesday's price would have been $2 a gallon -- still a dollar less than stations were charging after adding taxes. The new contract starts November 1st. MATA uses about 2 million gallons of fuel each year. The standard fare was increased in May from $1.25 to $1.40 because of fuel costs. In August, MATA's board approved the purchase of four hybrid electric-powered, 27-passenger buses, but they won't be in use for another year.
On Friday morning at 7:15, I board the number 50 bus from the main MATA station across from The Pyramid to Germantown. Fifteen of the 20 riders are schoolchildren dressed in their uniforms, and many of them get off in Midtown. The bus is one of seven accordian-style 60-footers in the fleet, and the ride is smoother than the older 40-foot model. In exactly one hour, it reaches the end of the line on Exeter east of Saddle Creek.
I spring for an extra 65 cents to cover the surcharge for Zone 1, plus another $2.05 for the trip back downtown on a different bus. It lurches along Poplar at a fast clip. From Exeter to Highland, there are never more than eight passengers, but 18 more get on between Highland and downtown. The bus pulls into the station at 9:05 a.m., just 50 minutes after leaving Germantown. It would be hard to beat that in a Lexus. The flat rate for parking in the lot across from the Criminal Justice Center at 201 Poplar, where several passengers get off, is $6 a day.
For most of us, however, efficiency and economy don't outweigh convenience, even at $3.29 a gallon.