Uptown & The Pinch

Main Street trolleys hit the tracks again

The Memphis Grizzlies’ drumline roared as the first of the city’s gleaming new trolleys was ushered out of the garage and into Main Street. With the cut of a ribbon, the Downtown trolleys are officially back in service.

Memphis Area Transit Authority’s chief executive officer Gary Rosenfeld said, “It’s a day we’ve been looking forward to for four years.”

The Main Street trolley line will begin operation with three cars running every 30 minutes during the week and every 20 minutes on Friday and Saturdays. The restoration for the 100-year-old cars included repairs to the frames and undercarriages, electrical rewiring, and carpentry work and cost approximately $1 million.

Rosenfeld noted the trolleys' importance to the city. He compared public transportation to the body’s circulatory system, moving blood and nutrient from place to place.

“It’s how growth occurs,” he said. "It’s how people elevate their well-being and participate in a healthy environment and society."

In addition to the public and MATA personnel, the April 30th launch was also attended by Congressman Steve Cohen, Mayor Jim Strickland, Memphis City Council chairman Berlin Boyd, the MATA advisory board and the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s Commissioner John Schroer.

Many of the speakers emphasized safety. The trolleys were removed in late 2013 after a fire claimed one of the fleet. The ensuing investigate prompted the entire system to be offlined and overhauled.

Rosenfeld reminded the crowd that he committed to providing the safest trolley system in the country. Mayor Strickland noted that it was important to get it right, even if it didn’t happen as quickly as officials had hoped. MATA’s board chair Sean Healy praised MATA’s staff for their perseverance when faced with unexpected challenges and commitment to the safety of riders and drivers.

Commissioner Schroer spoke to the federal law requiring an agency to oversee the safety of fixed guideway public transit systems (systems that can only move on their own tracks or guideways). TDOT helped push state-wide legislation that would allow them to oversee Memphis’ trolleys and Tennessee’s only other fixed guideway system, Chattanooga’s Lookout Mountain Incline Railway. This oversight helps to guarantee Memphis’ trolleys as the nation’s safest.

Prior to relaunching, MATA conducted extensive testing on cars, tracks, and power systems and spent time recertifying its employees.

Mayor Strickland called the trolleys a “sign of vibrancy” and praised the many people who worked on the project.

“All the good things in Memphis that occur, happen because of a team effort, and this is no exception,” he said.

Congressman Cohen noted that the trolley system overhaul was funded primarily with federal money, putting our citizen’s taxed dollars back to work in the local economy. That investment, he hopes, will draw in more tourists and more dollars to feed back into the local education system.

Cathy Lynch, president of the South Main Association, was in attendance and said the trolleys will greatly impact the South Main community. They will bring more visitors and tourists, increase business in the area, and improve safety. The trolley is so integral to the essence of South Main that it’s the focus of the associations’ logo.

“It’s the center of everything in our neighborhood,” said Lynch.

With the Main Street trolleys back in action, the next step is repairing the Riverside Loop followed by the Madison Avenue tracks. The system will be fully launched by early 2020. Commissioner Schroer said that before the trolleys went offline, they were leading in country in increases to ridership, and he’s looking forward to seeing those big numbers again.

To help get Memphis moving those numbers and celebrate the return of the trolleys, MATA is offering free trolley rides through May 14th. South Main will also be pulling out all the stops to welcome their old friends back. The last Friday in May they’ll host their Trolley Night art walk with special music and more open galleries to browse. 

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.