A Tale of Two Trails 

How MATA and a Midtown neighborhood approach alternative transportation.

Two new Midtown transportation corridors a mile apart are both approximately two miles long, alternatives to driving a car, and designed to tie their adjacent neighborhoods together. Both were built by patiently leveraging a little money and support into more money and support. Beyond that, however, they couldn't be more different.

The Memphis Area Transit Authority's Madison Avenue trolley line is a $56 million project built with federal, state, and local government funds. Its lead contractor was paid $25 million. Each of the four vintage 1940 trolley cars and one replica that roll along the tracks cost $575,000 to refurbish or construct. It is not unusual to see them running with one or two passengers or just a driver. The estimated operating subsidy is $1 million a year.

The trolley is popular for special events like last weekend’s baseball game at AutoZone Park.

The V&E Greenline is a walking/biking path along an abandoned railroad line near Rhodes College. It is owned by the Vollintine-Evergreen Community Association, supported by hundreds of small donations, and maintained by volunteers. Its annual budget is about $12,000 a year. Its biggest capital expenses were two bridges donated by Keeler Iron Works and a tractor purchased with the help of state government funds. The best customers are joggers and people walking their dogs.

As Memphis sprawls over 300 square miles and the price of gasoline approaches $2 a gallon, city and suburban governments and neighborhoods are looking for economical, nonpolluting transportation alternatives that can tie places together and foster a sense of community.

The Madison trolley line shows how MATA approaches the problem. It is envisioned as the first part of a $400 million light-rail line between downtown and Memphis International Airport.

The V&E Greenline is a good example of what neighborhoods and suburban communities such as Germantown and Collierville are doing. A few hardcore trail advocates see it as the first step in a rails-to-trails system along the abandoned CSX Railroad line stretching from the Mississippi River to Shelby Forest, where it would link up with the new Wolf River Greenway Trail in Germantown.

"It's ready to happen and just needs somebody to lead the charge," says Larry Smith, past executive director of the Wolf River Conservancy.

Over the next five or six years, these two visions and their supporters could find themselves competing for government funding and public support. The federal Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) is currently before Congress. The House version calls for $275 billion in funding over six years; the Senate version, $318 billion. The Bush administration has called for $256 billion.

Since 1991, federal legislation has recognized alternative modes of transportation such as bicycle lanes and trails, including the Memphis Bluffwalk. In government-speak, alternatives to highways are known as "transportation enhancements" or TE. The TE part of TEA-21 funnels more than $600 million annually to state transportation agencies to dole out to various projects.

It's likely that nine out of 10 Memphis and Shelby County residents have never ridden the Madison trolley line, which opened three weeks ago, or set foot on the V&E Greenline. But they're paying for one of them and may be asked to pay a lot more if MATA has its way. The new trolley line has been touted as an actual transportation system rather than a tourist attraction like the Riverfront trolley. As a Midtown resident who works in a downtown building on the trolley line, I am one Memphian who could conceivably get some regular benefit from the trolley.

Or at least that's what I thought until I spent two weeks dividing my time between walking and biking the Greenline for exercise and riding the trolley back and forth to work.

80 Minutes a Trip

As the all-but-empty trolley car sat motionless at the corner of Second and Madison while the traffic light changed from red to green for the fourth time, two thoughts ran through my head: What was MATA thinking when it built this thing, and what was I thinking when I decided to ride it for a week?

Taking the second question first, I considered it my journalistic and civic duty to give the trolley a serious shot. By way of disclosure, I have a bias in favor of alternative transportation. I drive cars until they fall apart, begrudge the money and energy it takes to fill up the tank, and walk whenever I can. Plus, my sister helps run a public transit agency in San Francisco. And $56 million in public funds (80 percent from the federal government) for a two-mile trolley line is no small sum -- close to the $58 million that the FBI wanted but didn't get to hire 300 special agents and translators to fight terrorism before 9/11 and four times the $14 million the city of Memphis is seeking to clean up property around the FedExForum.

The conditions for this little experiment were reasonably normal. The trolley had been operating for two weeks and local students were back in school after spring break, so the passenger traffic was fairly typical. The weather was good, which was fortunate because I wound up walking a lot. MATA officials declined requests for interviews but did answer written questions by e-mail.

The Madison line runs from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., with a reduced schedule on weekends. As is the case with any railroad or trolley line, most people have to drive to get to it. But because the line is only two miles long, the car ride is longer than the trolley ride for most Memphians. There is a large, well-lighted parking lot at the eastern terminus at Cleveland three blocks from Methodist Hospital. The fare is dirt-cheap -- 30 cents at lunchtime and 60 cents at other times, transfer included. The restored antique cars with their polished wood and painted ceilings are worthy of a place in the Smithsonian museum. The drivers were courteous if not always friendly.

But the trolley's shortcomings as a way to get to work -- as opposed to a way to get to special events like Memphis in May or baseball games at AutoZone Park when time is not critical -- soon became apparent. At this stage of its young life, the trolley is more like an expensive piece of government performance art than a mass transit system.

I live five minutes from the Madison line. The Flyer's office is across the street from the Riverfront line and two blocks from the Main Street line. It takes me a little less than 10 minutes to drive to work. But the best I could do by trolley was 35 minutes, and one trip took me 80 minutes. The average time for 10 trips was just under an hour. Without the transfer to the Main Street line, I could have made it to, say, Morgan Keegan Tower in 30 minutes, which is still a little like trading in your current computer for a 1988 Mac.

Riding the trolley on a regular basis suggested other purposes. It is a public works project benefiting politically connected contractors (one of them, Delon Hampton & Associates, headed by the former top aide to former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry), a steady source of repair and maintenance work for MLGW and private contractors, a generous subsidy to the artists and artisans who refurbished the cars and decorated the stations, a dubious stimulus to a handful of adjacent businesses, a nice photo for tourists, and a certain burden on taxpayers who will have to subsidize operating and maintenance costs that will push the true total cost far beyond $56 million.

My first trip, which came on a Friday, was also my worst. I left my house at noon, parked in the lot near Cleveland, and boarded a trolley 10 minutes later. (I found the promised 10-minute interval between trolleys a reliable estimate.) There were 12 other passengers, most of them families enjoying their last day of spring vacation. On the ride downtown we picked up six more passengers near Methodist Hospital and The Med.

All was well until we reached the intersection of Madison and Second, where I got out to transfer to a Main Street trolley. But a northbound trolley had broken down near Beale, backing up all the cars behind it -- the trolley equivalent of a wreck on the interstate that closes all lanes. A MATA employee talking on a radio said it would be a while and suggested walking four blocks to the Riverfront line at the end of Union Avenue. I did and waited there 25 minutes with a Dyersburg family with young children. Finally, I got tired of the children crying and walked the last half-mile or so along the Bluffwalk to the Flyer. In the 80 minutes that had passed since I left my house, I could have driven to Jackson, Tennessee.

The one constant sign of activity on this ride and all of my others was maintenance work, from hardhats in cherry pickers working on electric lines to MATA suits trying to get the switches to work to the city worker sweeping up glass and changing a light at the stop at Union and Riverside Drive.

The most troublesome problem at the moment seems to be the switches at Third and Second where three lines come together. Trolley drivers are supposed to be able to work the switch from their seats, but usually they had to get out of the car and do it from the switch post. Several times trolleys didn't move for three or more light changes while cars, pedestrians, and horse-drawn carriages maneuvered around them. Once, a driver told me "the big bosses" were on the case, and, sure enough, I recognized several MATA officials huddling with a city division director while a WREG-TV news crew filmed nearby.

A driver told me the Madison line may not have been quite ready for prime time when it opened. The Riverfront line, he said, ran for two months before taking on passengers. MATA officials told the Flyer by e-mail they are modifying the signal to reduce wait times, coordinating rail and traffic signals with the city, and asking the city to crack down on illegal parking which contributes to congestion.

As with highways, it is just a matter of time before there is a major collision. The trolleys go 15-20 miles an hour but can't stop as quickly as a car or get out of the way. One MATA driver predicted the first serious wreck will be where trolley cars coming off the Danny Thomas overpass merge with traffic on Madison just east of the YMCA.

There are seven passenger stops on the Madison line, each equipped with one or two stainless-steel hydraulic lifts the size of a Viking refrigerator to accommodate wheelchairs. The stops are many times the size of a bus stop, attractively landscaped, well-lighted, and provide some shelter in the rain. The AutoZone Park stop is decorated with tile mosaics, and the westbound Danny Thomas station is topped by a pair of "funky chicken" sculptures in homage to Rufus Thomas.

The circa-1940 antique cars are immaculate. Three of them came from Melbourne, Australia, and, after refurbishing, cost $575,000 each. I often shared them with the driver and one or two passengers who formerly rode the old Number 2 MATA bus down Madison; on three trips I was the only customer. The sparse ridership follows a publicity binge courtesy of local television stations and the daily paper, which treated the grand opening like it was the moon landing.

MATA estimates that 2,100 people will ride the Madison line each day within a year. If five trolleys make three trips an hour, that is roughly 200 trips per day at 10 passengers per trip. The operating cost is approximately $5,000 per day or $1.7 million a year, says MATA, which has a grant to cover three years of operating subsidies. The line connects two "employment centers" separated by Danny Thomas and Interstate 240. In theory, students at the Southern College of Optometry or doctors and nurses at Methodist or The Med can catch a trolley to downtown on their lunch hour. But on five lunch-hour trips at the discounted fare of 30 cents, I saw only a few people do this. I counted five new restaurants along the trolley line, but their outdoor tables were empty on clear spring days. The origins of the trolley go back at least 30 or 40 years, when a group of Memphis citizens stopped the federal government from running Interstate 40 through Overton Park and Midtown. When the Federal Highway Administration declared the segment "not essential" in 1981, Memphis got a $273 million windfall called interstate substitution funds. Part of that was used in the 1980s to rebuild the buckling and unpopular Mid-America Mall in preparation for the opening of the Main Street trolley in 1993. The Riverfront line, which only runs south, followed in 1997.

The modest ridership of the Main Street and Riverfront trolleys, except for special events, did not deter MATA from going ahead with the Madison line. Memphis and MATA had friends in Washington, D.C., including Marianna, Arkansas, native Rodney Slater, who was head of the Federal Transportation Administration under former President Bill Clinton. Planning for the Madison line began when Baptist Hospital and Campbell Clinic were still downtown going concerns. When the buildings they occupied are demolished, a proposed new biomedical research facility could provide badly needed traffic and visual interest to what is now mostly a wasteland of abandoned buildings and "for lease" signs.

By ending the line at Cleveland, the trolley leaves passengers in a no-man's-land a mile short of Overton Square and a mile beyond Pauline Street, the two proposed junctions for the $400 million light-rail line to the airport.

"Detailed studies were conducted for the Madison line in the mid- and late 1990s," MATA officials say. "The detailed analysis of ridership was based on the Office of Planning and Development's projections of development 20 years into the future, per federal requirements."

A Neighborhood Takes On a Railroad

The sum of $56 million would easily fund hundreds of neighborhood-based transportation alternatives. On a small scale, Michael Kirby can appreciate the problems and patience that are inevitably part of alternative transportation planning. A professor of political science at Rhodes and a resident of the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood, Kirby was one of the founders of the V&E Greenline.

In 1980, the L&N Railroad abandoned the line that primarily served the Sears distribution center on North Watkins. It passed through and near to attractive middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods known for their racial diversity and community activism, due in part to a history that includes battles over Interstate 40 and a controversial street closing.

For 15 years, the old railroad line just sat there. The city of Memphis could have bought it and banked a total of 33 miles from downtown past Bartlett but didn't want the expense or maintenance. Midtown neighbors started a community garden on the right-of-way and dreamed of a walking trail, but when they suggested to the railroad that they donate it, "they laughed," Kirby says. In 1996, the Vollintine-Evergreen Community Association (VECA) bought 1.7 miles for $15,000, using part of a grant to the neighborhood from the Pew Charitable Trust.

VECA leader Mary Wilder suggested a walk-through to decide what to do with the land. About 15 people showed up and eventually agreed that an unpaved walking and biking trail was the best option.

"It decreases crime because you bring positive activity to empty space," Wilder says. "Prior to taking possession, we were having classic vacant-lot syndrome, with dumped tires and shingles and stolen TVs."

A state grant provided $2,000 for a land-use plan by Ritchie Smith Associates. But after that, the neighborhood had no money to do anything, and people were cutting grass with hand mowers. Two bridges across creeks in the right-of-way had been removed by the railroad.

"There was a period of inertia," Kirby says.

A committee decided to ask for contributions. The largest one, $1,000, came from an anonymous donor through this newspaper. Most donations were under $50. But in retrospect, Kirby says they were the secret of the project's success.

"The first dollar in is sometimes not the biggest one, but it is the most important one," Kirby says. "Once we had some money, it forced us to do something."

Donations picked up after the first year. An article in The Commercial Appeal by Wayne Risher attracted the attention of former neighborhood residents Rob and Will Keeler. Their company, Keeler Iron Works, donated the labor and steel fabrication for the bridges. Barnhart Crane and Rigging also donated services. State lawmakers Steve Cohen and Carol Chumney helped secure funds for a tractor which is used for maintenance. Volunteer "tractor Ninjas" do the mowing and mulching. Another fund-raising campaign is under way to build a replica of a station house on the Greenline to house the tractor.

Each step of the process has been painstakingly slow. The first bridge took two years to complete; the second, more than a year. Until the building is completed, the tractor must be stored a mile away, which discourages volunteers from using it. Because it is neighborhood-owned, the Greenline isn't eligible for federal funds, so contributions come in $10, $20, or $50 at a time. There were 97 donations last year.

Kirby says pride of ownership offsets some of the difficulties.

"The lesson I give my students is the importance of leveraging," he says. "You get a little funding here and there. Unless you can put together those partnerships in and out of your neighborhood, it won't work."

Top five contractors on Madison Trolley

™ Hill Brothers Construction & Engineering Co. -- $25 million

™ Memphis Light, Gas & Water -- $9.1 million

™ Chris-Hill Construction Co. -- $6.6 million

™ Delon Hampton & Associates -- $4.6 million

™ BellSouth -- $4.1 million

Madison Trolley at a glance

™ Cost: $56 million

™ Location: Madison Avenue from Main Street Mall

to Cleveland in Midtown

™ Fare: 60 cents; 30 cents at lunchtime

™ Smartest stop: North gate of AutoZone Park

™ Bug in system: Switches at Main, Second, and Third

™ Best feature: Restored antique cars

™ Bottom line: Cars run every 10 minutes but often stall at downtown intersections

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