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Public Transit Advocates Divided on 'Sustainability Fee' Proposal

The Memphis Area Transit Authority


The Memphis Area Transit Authority could receive historic funding next year if a new plan by Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris is approved. But the proposal’s so-called "sustainability fee" has public transportation advocates divided, with some questioning the public's tolerance for an additional charge on some cars.

The plan targets households where more than two vehicles are registered—about 17 percent of homes in the county. A $145 fee would be attached to each additional car or trailer at these addresses. Businesses with fleets of vehicles would also incur the fee.

Harris says the additional $9 million in income would be used to increase the frequency of bus services.   

Some groups, even those who want expanded bus routes and funding, are pushing back. It could create a backlash against public transportation, says Johnnie Mosley, founder of Citizens for Better Service. He says requiring a small group of citizens— some of whom might not use or can’t access public transportation—to pay for it will create resentment. 

“You just don’t want people who do not depend on public transportation to be angry about something that can benefit the entire city,” he says.  

But Harris says that better public transit has shared benefits such as reduced traffic and lower auto emissions that justify the fee for those who may not use the bus system. 

“Why not come up with a plan that uses passenger vehicles as part of the solution,” Harris says. “Part of the solution to wear and tear on our infrastructure is to generate income for transit.”

Harris says his policy proposal is preferable to a broad-based tax on everyone.

"There won't be anywhere to go from there," he says. "So if you start off with something that's a little bit more narrowly tailored, that only applies to small segment of our can open up a conversation about how to fix transit."

There are concerns that the fee could create a burden for low-income households where multiple single-car owners might live at the same address.

"We are all in agreement that [MATA] needs to be improved, but then the question is how are you going to get the funds to improve public transportation without hurting people who [cannot] afford it," Mosley says.

So far, Harris’ proposal does not include exemptions for special circumstances, but he says he's open to modifying the plan based on feedback. An initial public forum is scheduled for September 26 at Impact Baptist Church in Frayser.  

It is unclear how many businesses may be affected. Harris’ office does not have current data on the number of companies with more than two vehicles. 

The City of Memphis’ largest employer, FedEx, said in a statement, “We are aware of and are reviewing the proposal.” The company did not say how many vehicles it has registered in Shelby County.  

Mosley is encouraging the mayor and local leaders to come up with an alternative funding source for MATA. The County Commission has to vote on the fee, which could happen early next year.   

Other advocates stand behind the plan as a first step to transforming a public transit system known for long wait times and spotty service.

"This is a conversation starter," says Courtney McNeal, a community outreach worker at the nonprofit Innovate Memphis. "The race is not won yet, we still have to fight more and to seek more funding for MATA so that Memphians can get to work."

Harris’ specific approach, McNeal says, could also have a long-term effect on people’s behaviors and motivate them to think more about the environmental impact of cars.   

“Implementing a sustainability fee will kind of shift the culture and allow Memphians to be more conscious of that moving forward,” she says.