The good, the bad, and the confusing: That seemed to be Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) President Ron Garrison's theme when he provided new details — but no start date — on the progress of the trolley system's rehabilitation.
"It's all about telling the truth," Garrison said at a trolley update meeting last week at Leadership Memphis. "It's not easy work. There's no way to do it any faster while doing it safely. Everything we're doing will make it so that we are the standard for the rest of the country. That's the standard the Federal Transit Administration is holding us to, and that's a very good thing. When you get on the trolleys, you'll be safe."
Since two fires on the Madison Line shut the trolley system down in June 2014, MATA has taken steps to implement an updated system. Funding shortfalls, however, and a lack of experienced workers have stalled the process. But, as MATA enters a six-phase plan that will result in 11 certified trolleys being back on line, the transit authority might almost be on track.
Garrison, additional MATA representatives, and Memphis congressman Steve Cohen recently met with Federal Transit Administration (FTA) administrator Carolyn Flowers in Washington, D.C. MATA left the capital with $3.3 million to purchase new trolleys. The city of Memphis voted to give MATA $1 million to purchase a trolley as well.
"FTA is doing what they can to help us," Garrison said. "They are coming here to meet with us in July. They advised me not give a start date even if I had one."
Reluctance to announce a timeline is in part due to 181 documents that MATA must produce throughout the rehabilitation process. So far, 96 documents have been submitted, but only about 15 are completed.
"They have to go through a certified ... national railroad consulting firm, of which we don't have but need to get," Garrison said. "Then it goes to FTA, their consultants, and their engineers. Then it goes to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, their consultants, and their engineers. Then it has to go through FTA Safety in Washington D.C., their staff, and their two consultants ... Then we have to do it again, it goes out again, it comes back to us again, and we have to finalize it through a safety certification committee."
Much of the trolley rehabilitation will happen in-house, Garrison said. The trolleys will receive outward-facing doors, new pantographs that will reduce the risk of fires, fireproof insulation, and a safer, low-voltage wiring system. Memphis will be the first in the country to move their entire system to low-voltage wiring, Garrison said.
"Right now, we have two trolleys that have been rehabilitated," Garrison said. "We're taking every single aspect of these trolleys and making them like new. From here on out, it would be nearly impossible for anything like what happened to happen in the future. What we're putting in place will probably be the safest in the country."
Rehabilitating the trolley's trucks, which carry the cars along the tracks, is costly. MATA sent eight trucks to be rebuilt off-site, each costing about $47,000. The overall rehabilitation goes hand-in-hand with restructuring the standards of the trolley system. Garrison said MATA's maintenance staff are being retrained and certified.
At the beginning of each month, MATA will post progress reports to their website until the last document is complete. The transit authority will then perform a four- to eight-week simulated service to ensure the trolleys are safe.
"I came to Memphis to fix this because I believe it's the right thing to do," Garrison said. "Memphis has been in my heart since I started coming here in the '60s. I have a photo of my daughter, who just turned 17 years old, when she was 2 years old on the trolley when Peabody Place was still running. It might be providence."