Tourists Keep Their Trolleys While Memphis Bus Riders Face Devastating Cuts

Memphis bus riders protest potential service cuts. Photo: Memphis Bus Riders' Union
Memphis bus riders protest potential service cuts. Photo: Memphis Bus Riders’ Union

Memphis’s transit system is in crisis.

For a long time, the Memphis Area Transit Authority redirected funds intended for repairing buses and trolleys to instead pay drivers and buy gas. Now the jig is up. A handful of buses as well as two of the city’s historic trolleys have actually caught fire in recent years.

According to MATA CEO Ron Garrison, the system is “on the verge of collapse.”

Memphis' historic trolleys shut down two years ago after a number of fires. But lawmakers are working on a fix. Photo: Wikipedia
Memphis officials quickly came to the rescue of the city’s historic trolleys, but haven’t leapt to defend regular bus service. Photo: Wikipedia

The city’s historic trolleys — which mainly serve tourists in the downtown area — were shut down two years ago after those fires. What followed was an all-hands-on-deck effort to restore trolley service, which is a “prize possession” of downtown developers, says Bennett Foster of the Memphis Bus Riders Union. Political leaders quickly pieced together $32 million in local, state, and federal funding to restore trolley service. Two replacement trolleys have been purchased.

But will local leaders come through for the people who rely on bus service to get to work and go about their day?

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland says that without an additional $7 million a year in operating funds from the city, plus $5 million to repair 11 buses, major cuts are coming. At the same time, the city is dealing with a number of other budget pressures, including as much as $10 million in additional annual spending for police pensions. Ultimately, the decision rests with City Council in upcoming budget negotiations.

If MATA’s budget gap isn’t closed, the agency will cut service 17 percent — a devastating possibility for the riders who depend on it. People make about 30,000 daily trips on Memphis’s transit system, which doesn’t have much fat to be trimmed.

For those passengers, the bus is essential. According to a survey by the Bus Riders Union, 60 percent of riders make less than $18,000 a year, and almost all of them lack access to a car. The vast majority — 90 percent — are black.

The city’s political class, however, doesn’t seem too eager to address Memphis’s transit problems, say Bus Riders Union members. “The City has its focus on downtown and gentrification to attract certain people, but what about those who need transportation to get to jobs or the grocery store?” said MBRU co-chair Cynthia Bailey in a statement. “Tourists come and go. What about the people who keep this city moving?”

  • What happened to Memphis’ burgeoning bike scene? Biking is a great way to extend the reach and usefulness of transit or even replace transit. Are the bikeways not reaching places that they need to go?

  • Steve Levine

    Good things are still happening for bikes in Memphis, though no where near quick enough. Bikeshare has been sort of stalled and information slow to surface. The city’s very accomplished Bike/Ped Coordinator is taking another position and so this is an interesting time. I hope that the city replaces his position and doesn’t resort to austerity economics.

    The trolleys are “nostalgic” and that’s about it if you ask me. They actually clog up the downtown area with their size and lack of maneuverability. The tracks are dangerous for car, bikes and peds when wet – super slick!

  • The Overhead Wire

    So why do we have to bash a part of the transit system that also gets little funding instead of the state which is spending gobs of money on roads? I really don’t like this framing as it lets the MPO and other agencies off the hook. Bus Riders Unions to me are never putting the blame in the right places.

  • Memphis BRU

    We also bash the state and MPO. No one is safe.

  • Memphis BRU

    Also, for clarity, our trolleys are not meant to be part of the transit system. They don’t use the same fare rate or passes. They are horizontal ferris wheels and we’re using transit dollars to build and maintain them, which directly results in less service for bus riders.

  • Walter Crunch

    Memphis is a driver’s paradise.

  • Andre Jackson

    As nefarious as the title of this article may sound, the issue of the crippled trolleys is much more complex than it infers. Simply put, tourism is a MAJOR component of Memphis’ revenue. This is not simply a consequence of gentrification or choosing wealthy downtowners interest over the needs of those dependent on public transportation. Memphis is one of the few cities in the nation to maintain working vintage transit trolleys. It’s a huge draw for tourists and Memphians alike. The loss of the trolleys for the past few years has had a palpable financial effect on commerce in the downtown area. The temporary “trolley-like” buses the city purchased in the interim have not resonated with visitors or locals, having major economic ramifications in downtown Memphis – especially during the warmer months when festivals and tourism peak. Perhaps the author should delve a bit deeper into the REAL fiscal missteps by the new administration (ie. unprecedented mayoral administration salaries, $38K per weekend at Greensward park for police presence, skyrocketing crime statistics, etc.) instead of picking the low hanging fruit to suggest the city doesn’t care about black citizens.

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