Consultants for the Memphis Area Transit Authority are exploring an extension of the Madison Avenue trolley line east of Cleveland Street to Overton Square and North Cooper Street.
It is one of seven Midtown routes the transit authority might change or enhance with a bus rapid transit concept that involves fewer stops, fewer turns off main thoroughfares and shorter travel times.
In the case of a “Fairgrounds via Madison” route, instead of buses, the consultants, Doug Moore from HDR Inc. and Geoff Slater of Nelson-Nygard, are suggesting using streetcars on a line running from Downtown that currently stops a few yards east of Cleveland.
“Pretty obviously that would be a streetcar route,” Moore told a group of 100 citizens at a July 16 public hearing hosted by Liveable Memphis.
But it wasn’t obvious to some in the audience at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.
The first question was how the transit system could realistically consider such an option when all existing trolley service stopped more than a year ago. It currently is being rebuilt to include a maintenance and operations foundation that barely existed before.
“It’s our intent to have trolleys back on Madison,” MATA deputy general manager Tom Fox told the group. “It is pretty tight and I think that is the next level of detail on Madison – figuring out if there’s enough room to accommodate travel lanes, parking, bike lanes and some type of transit.”
Nelson-Nygard did a 2011 study for MATA, which led to another study about specific bus rapid transit options for Midtown.
Moore and Slater and their teams rated and pared the possibilities down to seven, including the Fairgrounds via Madison route.
The other six are:
• A bus rapid transit remake of the Poplar-Germantown route, which is MATA’s most popular existing route in terms of ridership. The transit authority attempted a bus rapid transit treatment of the route in 2012 but abandoned it after several months.
• University of Memphis via Union Avenue and Poplar Avenue
• University of Memphis via Union, Cooper and Central that would be an east-west route with north and south movement along Cooper to include Overton Square and the Cooper-Young neighborhood.
• Crosstown at Cleveland and North Watkins, the second most popular existing MATA route.
• Crosstown that adds Elvis Presley Boulevard to the Cleveland and Watkins configuration. (This too would incorporate a previous MATA try at bus rapid transit. In this case it was the Whitehaven Flyer route on Elvis Presley Boulevard that folded in late 2013 after a few months.)
• Airport via Poplar and East Parkway including the Medical Center.
In those six possibilities, the consultants will consider bus rapid transit with and without a dedicated bus lane.
The exclusive lane for buses came in at an estimated capital cost of $20 million to $40 million per mile compared to $5 million to $10 million per mile for shared bus lanes.
The average speed with a bus-only lane would be 25 to 30 miles per hour and 15 to 25 mph in a shared lane.
The consultants estimate the frequency of service for both types of bus lanes at five to 15 minutes.
“That’s the next step is to look at each of these different routes to see what are the physical constraints,” Moore said. “Is there an opportunity to have a lane dedicated to bus service or are there different techniques we would use if there isn’t an opportunity to take the lane for buses?”
Slater said Midtown, like the rest of the city, has more potential east-west transit corridors than north-south. Unlike the rest of the city, Midtown has a density that lends itself to bus rapid transit.
The consultants estimated the Poplar express route could serve 112,021 jobs by 2010 employment numbers and the University of Memphis Union and Poplar route could serve 84,445 jobs.
But some listening again were skeptical.
Among those in the audience was John Gemmill, the director of the Memphis office of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Gemmill told Moore and Slater that working, low-income riders who are now the bulk of MATA’s ridership – 85 percent of all MATA riders do not own a car – don’t live in the areas that are among the Midtown options.
“They’re everywhere where that’s not,” he said pointing at projected maps on a screen. “I think you are advancing the transit system and not user groups.”
But the consultants and Fox told the group that the Midtown routes are just one part of a larger reworking of MATA’s citywide system with other parts of that system aimed at issues beyond building Midtown ridership.
“This is looking for a starting point,” Slater said. “These seven alignments are the seven that appear to us to hold the highest potential in terms of benefitting the highest numbers of existing riders, attracting new riders,” Slater said.