Moving Forward? 

MATA unveils unlimited-ride pass, plans new route study.

After years of the same old, same old, it seems MATA is trying to propel itself into the future. Or, at the very least, the present.

At a briefing last week, MATA officials unveiled plans for a comprehensive evaluation of the public transit authority, new on-board technology for buses, and an already ongoing new FastPass program.

With U.S. congressman Steve Cohen in attendance, as well as representatives from local government and U.S. senator Lamar Alexander's office, MATA said it would be hiring consultants to evaluate MATA's routes, service areas, hours, facilities, and funding.

MATA president and general manager Will Hudson said the study was the result of public comments about the organization.

"Some of the routes have been in place for many, many years," he said. "Change is not just for the sake of change. As Memphis has grown, we need to look at all segments of our community."

In mid-December, MATA also launched the "beta" version of its new FastPass program, an unlimited bus and trolley pass available in a daily, weekly, or monthly version.

"We began it to promote ridership and provide affordable transportation," Hudson said of FastPass.

Under the program, riders can buy a daily, unlimited-ride pass on the bus for $3.25. Seven-day and 31-day FastPasses can be purchased for $15 and $50, respectively, at MATA's customer service centers at either the North End Terminal or the American Way Transit Center. There are also special discounts for students and seniors.

The FastPass officially will launch in April, but MATA officials say they've already seen some success with the program. Though she can't speak to how it's affected overall revenue or ridership, MATA spokesperson Alison Burton said they have already seen a 47 percent increase in pre-paid ticket sales from this time last year.

Burton says MATA hasn't offered a similar program for "a number of years" because they haven't had the technology to do so. But with upgrades about six months ago, the FastPass program became possible.

In addition, MATA is using more than $4 million in federal stimulus money to implement "Smart Bus" technology, including on-board security cameras, GPS, automated stop announcements, passenger counters, and vehicle health monitoring.

All of which — the Smart Bus technology, the route and service-area study, and the FastPass — are good moves for a transportation agency that a local blogger this week called "third-world public transit." But is it enough?

Last week's briefing was MATA's attempt to show local officials the importance of public transportation and to lobby for more local and federal funding.

MATA doesn't have a designated funding source, though the city of Memphis funds about 45 percent, or $52 million, of MATA's operating budget. The transit authority got almost $18 million in stimulus funds — the bulk of which has gone to replace aging buses — but the suburban communities served by MATA don't help fund it.

At the briefing, Memphis councilman Bill Boyd talked of a time when MATA was supported by its riders and their fares, rather than the city's general fund. I don't think that will happen again any time soon, but what if it could? Even just partly?

Public transportation should be an easy sell. The benefits include higher property values, saving money, less pollution, less obesity, even time to read a book or listen to music while someone else is driving. So with economic benefits, health benefits, environmental benefits, what's not to like?

For a society that trades on ease and efficiency, lots. Time is money, and MATA seems clumsy and inefficient. Take the FastPass program. It's a great idea; they should have implemented something like this long ago.

But right now, a rider can only buy the weekly and monthly passes at one of MATA's two service centers. My question: How do you get to the service center to buy the pass? Buy a one-way fare before buying an unlimited-ride pass? Doesn't that seem like a waste of money, especially for a program implemented to make rides more affordable?

When asked about it, Hudson said riders can purchase the pass by mail.

We can talk about a culture of cars, how land-use patterns have been based around automobiles, but MATA could help itself gain wider support in the community by making things simple.

For the record, MATA does plan to install automated fare machines in several locations, so riders can use credit cards to purchase tickets. Again, it's a great idea, but it also seems like it should have been done years ago.

For MATA's core ridership — and perhaps for MATA itself — cost is the only factor. But for another group, a place where MATA could grow its ridership, convenience is just as importance as cost. And, frankly, it's time for MATA to get up to speed.

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