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Finally Some Relief for Memphis Bus Riders

The shameful state of Memphis's bus system is one of the more outrageous stories in American transit.

Buses in Memphis are in such bad shape, there have been a number of fires. But help is on the way. Photo via Memphis Bus Riders Union
Buses in Memphis are in such bad shape, they've been known to catch fire. But help is on the way. Photo via Memphis Bus Riders Union
Buses in Memphis are in such bad shape, there have been a number of fires. But help is on the way. Photo via Memphis Bus Riders Union

When we checked in with the advocates at the Memphis Bus Riders Union in March, they told us the local transit agency, MATA, was running buses so poorly maintained that they were known to catch fire. In the midst of this crisis, local business leaders had marshaled enough cash to restore the city's historic trolley system, which mostly serves tourists. Meanwhile, MATA was struggling just to maintain bare-bones operations, with a 17 percent service cut looming.

The current condition of buses is so poor, riders can't even be assured a bus will arrive no matter how long they wait, said Bennett Foster of the Bus Riders Union.

"Some routes are not being served throughout the day due to a lack of buses," Foster told Streetsblog. "When a bus breaks down they don’t have another bus to send out. There are people in the city every day who experience just no buses running."

But the advocacy of the Bus Riders Union is getting results. Mayor Jim Strickland has allocated an additional $7.5 million from the city budget toward the transit system this year. About $5 million of that will be reserved for replacing buses -- an absolute necessity.

Foster says MATA hopes to buy 15 buses, which would replace a quarter of the agency's fleet. On top of that, the agency has been awarded a $5 million FTA grant to replace an additional 10 to 15 buses, said Foster. Once half the buses in service have been replaced, reliability is expected to improve quite a bit.

The BRU is also campaigning for the city to revive the 31 Crosstown bus route, serving north and south Memphis. Before the route was cut in 2013, the 31 Crosstown served about 2,600 riders a day, making it the third most-widely used route in the system.

It will cost about $3.5 million annually to reinstate the route, Foster estimates.

"The city budget is over $650 million a year," he said. "We think that it would be possible for them to find this money."

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