Driving transit reform: New leadership at MATA may be just the ticket

In the final installment of our series on the future of Memphis transportation, we look at the cornerstone of our public transit and the challenges being tackled by the new man behind MATA, Ron Garrison. He intends to address budget, equity and route issues to keep Memphis buses rolling forward.  
According to the American Public Transportation Association, public transit saves Americans 646 million hours of travel time and 398 million gallons of fuel annually, provides access to healthcare providers and basic necessities for millions of elderly Americans and people with disabilities, offers access to millions of jobs and significantly increases the health of those who use it.

It has been well reported that Memphis leads the nation in obesity rates, and in 2010 Memphis jumped to a 27.2 percent poverty rate, up from 20.6 in 2000. Meanwhile, steady budget cuts have continually reduced transit service lines and frequency in Memphis while jobs steadily develop in outlying locations. With the announcement of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.'s Blueprint for Prosperity to reduce the poverty rate by 10 percentage points by 2024, Memphis leadership and its dedicated citizens are working to meet these problems head on. This renewed dedication to creating change is embodied in Ron Garrison, the injection of fresh insight heading up the Memphis Area Transit Authority

In July MATA board members chose Garrison as its new General Manager after Will Hudson, who worked at the organization for 49 years, retired. Garrison brings to the table not only his experience overhauling Tallahassee, Fla.'s transit system, but also a long list of ideas and a seemingly inexhaustible well of enthusiasm.
"We want to be the best transit system this side of the Mississippi," said Ron Garrison, new General Manager of MATA
"Corny as it may sound, people really don't care what you know until they know how much you care. You got to care, otherwise why would you be in this business? Why would I be in this business? It's not an easy business," Garrison, 58, said.

Garrison is in the process of developing a series of plans that address eight problem areas of MATA, including establishing the right staff, participating in land use planning, route improvement, budget issues, equity issues and paratransit (special transportation services for people with disabilities), among others. Dialogue has been an important first step for Garrison to move public transportation forward in Memphis.

The Push for Equity
The Memphis Bus Riders Union, an advocacy organization comprised of volunteers, hopes Garrison’s plans include what they consider most important, an equitable system for all riders.

"We see it as a civil rights issue. To benefit all is wonderful, but for some, transit is crucial. The decisions that affect funding affect those who ride, and those who ride are low-income and usually people of color," Bennett Foster, one of the union's founders, said. 

"One of the projects we're working on now is to develop input for MATA equity issues so that we can reach out to neighborhoods that are underserved by MATA and get their input and make recommendations in a more formal, documented way and so that the MPO and MATA planners will have an equity spin in what they do."

Since forming three years ago, the union has gained some ground, including retrieving city funding for MATA that had been cut, as well as garnering formal representation in the form of a regular bus rider sitting on the MATA board. 

"MATA has been cut consistently since Mayor Wharton took office. It has been cut in every budget cycle," Foster said. "This year Wharton included funding for MATA, then Lee Harris amended to add another $800,000 for a total of $2.4 million. That restored the budget to the 2010 levels of funding. That was a major deal for us."

In June of last year, Memphis resident and transit-dependent single mom Shelia Williams was appointed to the MATA board, a first for Memphis. "I think the mayor wanted someone who was committed to public transit and who wanted to see positive change," Williams, 38, said. "All of my colleagues on the board and I have the same goals. We want to see public transit in Memphis enhanced. I'm excited to see where MATA is going, but it's a process."

The Route to Better Transit
Garrison and his team at MATA recently completed an origin destination study, which collected thousands of surveys revealing to where customers travel, why, from where they travel, and how often and when.

"That's a match to land use. We're looking at how land is used, because how land is used indicates where people want to go. If you can have transit match land use or your origin destination study, you can build a better mousetrap," Garrison said. The idea is that matching transportation to land use will improve bus routes and system efficiency.

As a result of the survey, Garrison found that development in Memphis has followed a pattern similar to that in many U.S. cities. "There has been sprawl, and a lot of streets now don't work well with transit," he said. He notes that the area where workers live has grown significantly, and there is often a significant distance between workers and employers. This puts a strain on the transit system.

The current strategy for public transportation to cover such a sprawling area is the use of bus "hubs"--buses come together at hubs, and riders can transfer at the hubs to access routes in different parts of town. The result, though, can often be an extended, scattered, more costly commute. "I live here and I want to go here," Garrison said in an example, "but I gotta take the bus all the way down to here, then take it to there, then take it to there. It doesn't work for folks."

"We need to plan better for our region, working closely with our MPO [Metropolitan Planning Organization], working with economic development, working with the Chamber of Commerce, with folks like the Hyde Foundation, with employers, and all the businesses downtown to create a strong downtown core and a strong transit system."

Customers First
While Garrison and the MATA team work toward matching transportation to land use, he hopes to address the other needs expressed in customer feedback. The list includes safety, cleanliness and customer service.

"Safety is always first. Another one is that the bus is clean. When that door opens on the bus, you don't even have to set foot on that bus to feel the atmosphere. It's palpable. You can feel if it's going to be a good experience or a bad experience," he said. "We have to look at it from the customer's perspective and what's important to them, because we're public servants. It's not our money. It's not our system. It belongs to you and other folks, and we want it to be an enjoyable experience."

Garrison believes the first step in changing the customer experience is working with his current staff and employees to address concerns. "The person who has most control over making a difference in people's lives is that bus operator, who is a hero for what some of our operators deal with. They're heroes in our community, so I want them to have everything they need to be heroes for our customers," he said.

Once again, his initial strategy for enacting changes began with opening the lines of communication with staff. "I come in early and I talk to the mechanics, the operators and staff," he said. "They need to know that we care and that we're all in this thing together and what they do is important and matters."

Garrison has hosted staff retreats and conducted a SWOT analysis ("Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats") to better gauge where his employees are best served, and where they serve best. "We need to be investing in our employees, setting new standards and goals, incorporating really good change management, and getting people excited about being here and being a part of the new things we're going to do," Garrison said. "We want to be an employer of choice. We want to be the best transit system this side of the Mississippi."

But the results of the SWOT analysis also showed him he needed to be hiring new people--the "right people." He has discovered gaps between meeting federal requirements and employing the right people to meet those requirements.

"We're not staffed right. The reporting and the requirements from the Federal Transit Administration have literally quintupled in the last few years, probably even more than that in the last decade, but we haven't increased staff to take care of all of those requirements," he said. "We have the brain power, but we don't have enough of the brain power to do some of the planning we need to do."

Money and Machines
Perhaps highest on Garrison’s "to do" list is the labyrinthine issue of funding. Funding is tied to land use planning, demographics, maintenance and many other arms that serve as spokes on the public transit wheel. He has some nimble ideas on how to save money in some areas, and some innovative ideas on how to raise money in others, but first he had to recognize the challenges in the system. The high cost of maintenance was the most obvious.

"Transit is expensive. It costs $70 to $100 an hour. Even if you make a small change to improve routes, to try to accomplish something--say it's only five minutes--well, it's five minutes each way, which is 10 minutes times 12 trips a day times 260 times a year. It gets expensive," he said. "Funds and transit are complicated, and our funds have been cut back and cut back and cut back. The demographics have also changed, and those demographics are part of the funding formula for federal funds."

Then there is the maintenance predicament.

"We have 49 buses. A bus is supposed to go about 500,000 miles, and a heavy-duty transit bus costs $400,000. Many of our buses have 700,000 miles on them, which means they're way past [their expected life], and that explodes the cost of maintenance. We have 49 buses scheduled for replacement, but we've had to capitalize our maintenance just to keep our service in place. And we only have money for three," Garrison said.

Not Going It Alone
Partnerships will be key in Garrison's vision of MATA's future. And he's not afraid to seek outside guidance. He has invited several consultants to help with short-range plans, paratransit, implementing a new IT and ITS system, and maintenance. He is leveraging open dialogue to find help wherever he can, including the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). He's planning a trip to DC to discuss MATA problems and to say, in his words, "We need your help."

Collaboration with local businesses and governments is also an important step in solving MATA problems. Garrison hopes to implement pass programs with local businesses and universities to create better support and relationships, and is even open to a regional transit authority. "I think there could be opportunities with a regional transit authority versus a Memphis Transit Authority, which would widen your scope and potential projects and monies to help the entire region."

Another area on which he has narrowed his initial focus is paratransit. His plans for paratransit include creating a defined eligibility program, streamlining its scheduling and implementing innovative solutions to be more cost effective. "The cost of a paratransit ride is between $28 and $45 per trip. The average cost of a bus ride [to the rider] is about $2.70 per trip. If this trip costs $80, we'll get a contract with a cab company to do it for $15," Garrison said.

He hopes to work closely with the City on the issue of equity in public transportation, and he intends to participate in Mayor Wharton's Blueprint for Prosperity. "The City is totally behind us and wants to help us. We're talking with them on the front end of their budget process, not at the end, and that's a first," Garrison said. "I think the Mayor's Blueprint for Prosperity is really important. Americans spend about 19 percent of their income on transportation. In Memphis, it's much higher than that. If we put that back in people's pockets so that they can put the money back in the community and spend it, that's a positive thing."

For Garrison, it can be as simple as a mother"s advice. "My mom always said we'd all get along a lot better if we just tried to understand each other. It's knowing that you're more important than I am, because I'm just a public servant," he said. "If we'd all think more highly of the other person than ourselves, we'd all get along a lot better. It just takes a little humility."

Read more articles by Lesley Young.

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