Monday, May 11, 2020

MATA CEO Talks Funding, Frustrations, and the Future

Posted By on Mon, May 11, 2020 at 12:01 PM

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The city’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year allocates $10 million less to the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) than this year’s.

In Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s proposed budget, which he presented to the Memphis City Council last week, MATA would get a little under $19.2 million in fiscal year 2021, down from this year’s amount of $29.2 million.

However, Gary Rosenfeld, CEO of MATA, said he does not anticipate this affecting the agency’s ability to provide services over the next year, largely due to a substantial stimulus package from the federal government.

Under the federal CARES Act, MATA is slated to receive approximately $35.7 million in aid. Rosenfeld said the guidelines for spending CARES Act funds for transit is fairly liberal.

“This money is available and we will charge whatever we can legitimately charge to these accounts,” he said. “We should not see any type of degradation of service because of the city’s financial situation. We should be okay as long as we move cautiously and make sure every expenditure we want to use the stimulus package for is legitimate based on the rules and regulations.”

Rosenfeld said MATA has spent a “considerable amount of money” in response to the coronavirus, on expenditures such as PPE, cleaning, and hazard pay for employees.

These expenses can potentially be offset by CARES Act funds, he said: “We don’t anticipate a negative impact on this fiscal year.”

Service will continue, but there likely won’t be enough funds to make significant improvements in the upcoming year, based on the city’s budget. MATA was also on track to receive a $10 million investment from Shelby County next year.

Since September, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, backed by a number of county commissioners and community members, has been leading the charge to generate dedicated funding for MATA.

Harris’ proposal to generate the funds would have implemented an annual fee of $145 for a household’s third vehicle. Early this year two county commissioners presented an alternate plan that would have increased the countywide motor vehicle tax, also known as the wheel tax, by $20 for every vehicle owner.

But in the midst of a pandemic and economic uncertainty, both plans have been thwarted. Now, Harris is proposing to increase the wheel tax by $16.50 but to supplement the county’s budget.

“Given the financial situation of the city and the county as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I don’t think the county is going to move forward with that plan, at least not for this next fiscal year,” Rosenfeld said.

MATA was planning to use the additional funds to make major improvements along the agency’s core routes that would have increased service frequency.

With these improvements, Rosenfeld said 80 percent of riders would have been able to get from point A to point B in less than an hour. “Well that’s going to be on hold for a bit, and that’s unfortunate. As we plan to bring routes back on line in the future, we will be looking to make changes to bring our routes in line with the transit vision plan. Any opportunity we get to move in that direction, we will certainly be doing that.”

On Board

Rosenfeld said the level of service MATA is able to provide is being affected by the pandemic, but the agency is doing its best to meet passengers' needs. 

Per city guidelines, which heed the advice by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 10 passengers are allowed on MATA buses at a time.

“There’s still social distancing issues, and that puts a limit on the resources available to provide service to the community,” Rosenfeld said. “We’re having to run three or four buses to provide the same level of service that one or two buses did before. That’s also additional costs.”

Rosenfeld said he believes MATA has been “fairly successful” at filling the gaps with extra buses to shorten wait times and maintain continuity of service.

Typically carrying about 22,000 passengers in a given day, MATA has had between 7,000 and 8,000 passengers a day since the pandemic began. Rosenfeld said these numbers are similar to other transit agencies across the country since COVID-19 has caused ridership to decrease: “So from a statistical standpoint, we’re doing good.”

Still he knows service hasn’t been “100 percent accurate” and is aware that customers are frustrated.

“Have we received complaints from the public that they don’t like the route network in its current form?” Rosenfeld said. “Certainly, we have. We share that frustration with customers in the fact that we have had to limit our core network. We also fully understand that it’s frustrating to have a bus pass when there are ten people on a bus already and you can’t get on.

“However, the safety of passengers and employees is of greater concern to us. We’re making these decisions with their safety in mind. It may not necessarily be with their convenience in mind, but it certainly is with their safety.”

Rosenfeld also urges employers to recognize some of the inconveniences that transit riders are facing now and be understanding.

Preparing for the Future

From fare boxes to reopening its transit centers, Rosenfeld said MATA has a lot to consider as it returns to “normal.”

“When we resume fare collection, what is that going to look like?” Rosenfeld said. “The fare box will still be something that everybody is touching and it’ll be taking money that’s dirty. So we’re reviewing what that will look like. What technology is available to enable us to be able to collect fare safely.”

MATA is also looking at how to change the seating configuration on its buses so that passengers can practice proper social distancing, while also considering what type of barriers can be installed on board to protect bus operators.

“We’re looking at all of these things and trying to gain as much information as possible,” Rosenfeld said. “I’d be foolish to say I know what tomorrow is going to bring. There’s a lot of information out there. Rules keep changing. We do a lot of work to find out the guidance has changed and now the end zone is in a different place.”

Rosenfeld said this is one reason why MATA has to take a cautious approach, especially when it comes to how to allocate the CARES funds.

“If we invest it too quickly, we might find that we are overspending on one thing and not spending enough on something else,” he said.

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