By Jackson McNeil, Transportation & Mobility Director
Transit Equity Day is a national day of action to commemorate the birthday of Rosa Parks by declaring that public transit is a civil right. In Memphis, Innovate Memphis has participated in an annual event on February 4th with other transit advocates and organizations to honor Rosa Parks and continue the fight for equitable transit. While Rosa Parks’ courageous decision to refuse to give up her seat sparked the movement for transit equity, the battle for achieving a truly equitable transit system continues.
Public transit is crucial to increasing freedom and opportunity for all. Increasing access expands the number of options that people have and gives them agency over their own lives. This is what we typically refer to when we talk about “freedom” and “the land of opportunity”. These are the ideals and principles that all those who have fought for civil rights in our country have asked us to uphold and extend to those who have been marginalized and oppressed. For the tens of thousands of Memphians who do not own or drive a car because of their age, their disability status, the economic burden, or other factors, public transit opens a world of opportunity. Without effective public transit, thousands of Memphians are limited in their ability to access jobs, school, places of worship, healthcare, and many other destinations. Due in large part to an underfunded public transit system, every day a Memphian is missing out on an opportunity to find and keep meaningful employment. Another Memphian is missing an important doctor’s appointment. Yet another is missing out on a chance to connect with family and friends.
At Innovate Memphis our mission is to develop initiatives, nurture partnerships, and innovate solutions to move Memphis forward to deliver impactful, sustained change. We believe that these solutions should be equitable and, when targeted, tailored to the specific needs of a given community. In Memphis, our local transit system has been lagging behind our peers for far too long, contributing to inequity and lost opportunity for many communities.
Innovate Memphis participated in the 2023 Transit Equity Day event to highlight additional local funding options for Transit Vision, a plan developed in 2018 by the City of Memphis’ 3.0 Comprehensive Plan and Innovate Memphis, in partnership with Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) and the Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).
The plan resulted in a proposed and recommended redesign of our bus network that would change how people connect across the city. The bus network would decrease the amount of time people must wait at a bus stop or ride a bus to reach their destination, thereby increasing the number of jobs reachable in under an hour by 39% for all Memphians. For low-income and minority residents, jobs access would increase, on average, by 49% and 45%, respectively. An additional 79,000 people would have access to frequent service, increasing from 2% of people with the existing system to 14% with the Recommended Network. An additional 103,000 jobs would be near frequent service, increasing from 6% with the existing system to 25% with the proposed network.
Transit Vision was developed with extensive input from the public, stakeholders, and elected officials. Over 2,000 Memphians completed public input surveys, and 78% agreed that the new bus network would be better for Memphis. In addition, 77% are willing to pay more for transit.
When Transit Vision was adopted by the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) as its guiding document for future improvements, the total implementation cost was an additional $30 million in annual investment in capital and operating support. Inflation and the rising costs of labor and materials causes this number to increase each year we delay full funding, with current costs closer to $35 million. While this figure may seem large, we can put this in perspective with a few of our peer cities’ transit agencies: local governments invested $222 million dollars in St Louis Metro, $83 million in New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, $64 million in Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, $61 million in IndyGo (Indianapolis), and $50 million in the Transit Authority of River City (Louisville). An additional $30-$35 million dollars in funding would help us catch up with many of the peer cities we are lagging behind.
Memphis has been able to celebrate several big funding wins for transit in the past year. The Federal Transit Administration recently awarded MATA a total of $140 million dollars in grants through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The $140 million is limited to capital projects, meaning MATA cannot use this money to pay bus drivers or run more buses on existing routes to implement the Transit Vision plan. The capital funding will help pay for building a new operations and maintenance facility, electric bus purchases and related infrastructure, and Memphis’ first Bus Rapid Transit system (Memphis Innovation Corridor). Local funding has also gained traction in the past year, with both City and County government creating dedicated funding sources for transit from expiring PILOT projects. Although the fund grows incrementally each year, annual funding is not projected to exceed $30 million before the year 2030.
As the cost of delivering effective transit continues to grow, the time to fully fund Transit Vision is now. To achieve transit equity and move Memphis forward, we must be dedicated as a community to implementing proven and effective solutions. Through past research conducted by Innovate Memphis, several local funding options have been identified for transit, many of which have been previously debated by our local government. Though the details around these funding options will be important to iron out as we move forward, the more important work ahead of us is to continue to advocate for public transit funding that reflects the values of our community. If we truly value equity, freedom, and opportunity in Memphis, let’s fund a transit system that proves it.
For more information, check out the Memphis Transit Vision Action Plan
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