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Mayor Harris Adjusts "Sustainability Fee" Proposal for Public Transit

Katie Riordan

In response to public feedback, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris has modified his plan to increase public transportation funding via a so-called “sustainability fee.”

Harris' proposal would net $9 million for the Memphis Area Transit Authority by charging households with more than two cars a $145 fee per additional vehicle.

The updated proposal would only attach the fee to the third car at a single address, meaning there would be no charge for a fourth, fifth or even sixth vehicle. Non-traditional vehicles such as motorcycles and trailers will also no longer be included.

Harris says the fee would affect less than 20 percent of the roughly 350,000 homes in the county.

At a Frayser Exchange Club meeting Thursday afternoon, Harris addressed recent criticism that the fee targets Memphis’ suburbs—areas with little to no public transit. 

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “There are more folks with three vehicles in the City of Memphis than there are in any suburban municipality, even if you added them all up.”

Harris told the audience of about 40—many leaders of area nonprofit organizations—that the two percent of Shelby County’s residents that currently rely on public transportation are mostly low-income, minority groups without access to a vehicle.  

“I know that transit advocacy is not something that touches everyone in this room, but it should,” Harris said. “I am very concerned about working folks that are trying to make it to the end of the week, but I am also concerned about the end of the planet, and those things are synched up in my view.”

The crowd offered a mostly positive response to the mayor's plan. Still, several people were concerned that even with more funding, MATA still wouldn’t reliably serve poor or sprawling neighborhoods like Frayser. 

Business owner and director of the nonprofit Angel Tree for Shelby County, Michael Steven Moore, called the proposal “creative” but questioned how accountable MATA would be to the additional funding.   

“We need to make sure that MATA really gives us something that is beneficial to the people, and the people most in need of this additional help,” he said. “The people who don’t have cars, who are using MATA, if MATA can’t get to them...they may need that person with a third car to give them a ride.”

Harris, who believes his proposal to be a first step towards transforming Memphis’ transit system, wants the $9 million to help increase the frequency of buses on eight established routes and create a new express airport shuttle, which is in line with the city’s 3.0 transit plan.  

“Our expectation is that MATA would be able to increase their ridership by over a million rides,” Harris said, noting that current ridership is around 7 million a year. 

Peggy Jefferson, a Frayser resident who owns a furniture store, says the fee would affect her business. She owns a total of seven vehicles, some for business purposes. Harris' proposal levies a tax on commercial vehicles as well. 

Jefferson does not oppose the additional fee but hasn’t yet made up her mind about the proposal.

“I know people who are struggling with three vehicles and cannot hardly pay their taxes on them,” she says. “I’m just listening trying to get more information."

The next scheduled public meeting on the proposal is Oct. 4 at the County Administration Building Downtown.