Last week, after taking an early-morning bus ride to get there, board members at the MATA retreat knew exactly where they want the transit authority to go:
"The whole board's focus is on two things: providing better, more efficient service and increasing ridership," said board president Fred Johnson.
At the board and staff retreat, MATA officials said they want to partner with local nonprofits, improve MATAplus, and update the routing structure.
"In the face of budget cuts, I'd like to see us come up with some new ways to increase revenue," said board member Sheila Redick. "We need to think about increasing ridership to that end."
The city of Memphis funds almost half of MATA's operating budget, but with the city facing ongoing fiscal challenges, MATA is bracing for cuts. But they hope that their plans for a new routing structure will help turn MATA around.
"Right now, the benefits of public transit as a whole don't outweigh how hard it is to use in Memphis," Redick said. "We will not get a groundswell of support unless we tackle the issue of routes."
Other board members agreed.
"We want to increase ridership. The only way to do that is with people who want to ride MATA," Chooch Pickard said. "We're tapped out of people who have to [ride MATA]."
Board member and former city councilman John Vergos has been vocal in his support for a grid system, but MATA officials said that might be challenging, given Memphis' low density.
"The headways have to be every 15 or 20 minutes," said Tom Fox, MATA's assistant general manager. "If it's more than that, it's hard to schedule transfer points. We'd need to add frequency to most of the routes."
As of press time, MATA officials were scheduled to meet with two consulting firms — Perteet, Inc., out of Washington state, and San Francisco's Nelson\Nygaard — for the $300,000 transit study. The board is expected to approve the selected firm at its November 22nd meeting.
As part of the short-range transit plan study, the consultants will be soliciting public input, but board members also had a few ideas of their own. During his morning commute, Pickard noticed that none of the stops included maps or information about bus service, a problem for new riders.
"If it's a transfer location, it's important to know that," Pickard said. "If that sign had said 36/54, that would have given me confidence that I was in the right place, because the bus was late."
I would suggest consultants look the number of bus stops. Coming back from the MATA retreat, I turned west onto Mississippi Boulevard from Crump and found myself behind a bus stopped at the post office building.
The bus started again ... only to stop 200 feet later at another bus stop. Then it did it again another 200 feet later.
On the two-and-a-half-mile stretch from Cooper to Highland on Southern Avenue, there are 27 bus stops. 27! And one on the corner of every block from Greer to Highland.
I'm sure there was a reason for this in the past, but it seems a little excessive. If a person can walk to a bus stop, they can probably make it another 200 feet down the street. I've been on the greenline; this community knows how to walk.
Which brings me to the next point.
"Sometimes it's not the big things that can change a city," Vergos said. "With a new and improved bus system that's as customer friendly as we can make it ... it's something that could put us on the map without spending $200 million in capital improvement."