Moving in Memphis

I had read about Memphis Area Transit Authority President/General Manager William Hudson, Jr.’s beginnings in public transportation before going to visit MATA, but I had to ask him about it when we sat down to talk about what’s happening at the Memphis agency.

It was when he was little, riding the bus, that he watched the bus drivers and thought, I can do that. “Back then I didn’t know it was public transportation, it was just transportation,” he says. “We had to ride the bus but riding the bus was really fun.”

Hudson continues, “Back in those days it was segregated and we had a certain day to ride the bus.

“I never have forgotten it; we were riding the bus to the zoo and there was a white section and a black section and we got a little too close to the white section and so the driver pulled us off and I think the thing we were more concerned about was not so much them pulling us off, but the fact of being afraid of what our mother was going to say,” he says. “We had to walk all the way back.”

The transit authority was always in the back of his mind, Hudson says, and when he and several friends heard they were hiring, they went and put in applications. “We did and at that point I had no idea. No idea I would get an opportunity to drive a bus.”

Hudson drove a bus for 13 years and driving him to continue on was the people. “I like people,” he says of the people he was serving and those that were around him, “dedicated to providing the kind of service we’ve never really had money to provide,” he says.

His career started as a bus driver, and then he began to work through the various departments: scheduling, customer service, parts and maintenance and then ended up in operations. “I find that’s where I really wanted to be; so I’ve been in ops since, all the way up until I became general manger in ’93,” he says.

After working up through the different departments, he knows a little bit about all of it. “I can give some input in to everything but not being the master of any,” he says with a smile. “When you’ve been in the battlefield and they know you’ve been there, there’s an added respect.

“I’ve always allowed my people to do their jobs, I don’t interfere with it in that sense, but I’m always there for counseling, support or advice.”

Spending an entire career in Memphis, he says the experiences and relationships with the community and local government has been beneficial. “I know a lot of the decision makers,” Hudson explains. “That really helps us and with MATA not having a dedicated funding source, we have to go to the city and the state and Feds for our capital and in some cases operating, they can support that.”

He says the reason he’s able to do that is because of the staff, which also has longevity at the agency. Hudson rattles off a list of staff that has been with the agency, all for around 20 years.

“They become experienced and they become more valuable, and if they weren’t good people, they wouldn’t stick around; you wouldn’t allow it,” Hudson says. “So it makes your job easier. And when the turnover does come – the retirement – we try to have succession planning in place.”

Recently, the director of rail, Ms. Harris, retired and the person that took her place had been her assistant for five or six years, so he was able to step right in to the position. “And now we have another young lady working, and he’s training her so he can have a good assistant. If something happens and he leaves, then we have somebody to take over.

“Same thing in paratransit. The manager, James, has been here 35 years, Linda’s been here 10, 12, and she’s been his understudy,” Hudson says. “He said he may retire at the end of this year and she’ll be ready to step right in, so we’re pretty well prepared.

“There’s no way we’ll be able to replace the experience he has when he walks out, but she’ll get it. She’ll get it and that’s the way it works.”

And then Hudson points out the woman that had stepped in during our interview, Director of Marketing and Customer Service Alison Burton. He guessed at 25 years, but she points out it’s 30. “I’m in the retirement program,” Burton laughs.

“I think it’s a pretty good job,” Hudson says of why people stick around at MATA. “We do what’s right. We try to, anyways, so they stick around.”

As for Hudson, he jokes that retirement is always in the future for him. “Actually my contract ended last year and they extended it another 15 months,” he explains. “The mayor, when I met with him, we were kidding, and I said with the new governor coming in I’m sure there are some changes and all and he actually agreed to the extension. The only thing he asked was just make sure that when I decided to leave it to give him some notice.” He adds, “So I felt pretty good about that.”

Growing with Memphis

Assistant General Manager of Administration Tom Fox has been with MATA for 20 years and was doing consulting before coming to MATA. He says when coming to the transit side, he had to shift the focus that roads should be a last resort and should be building sustainable development patterns. “That was a pretty big shift for me,” he says.

“Folks are in that old mentality of we need more money to build more roads to open up new areas for development farther out,” he continues. “I think we make a pretty good case for what we do. You see it at the national level with Congress. It was going very much toward transit, and then with the latest election you see it flipping back, wanting to go back to the old ways.”

In Memphis, Burton says the city has gone through a big growth period. “Our downtown community has grown, and we would like to think we’ve been a part of making it happen because we’re able to connect people.

“They can leave their cars and hop on the trolley or walk or bike.” She says, “It’s been slow for Memphis to get into those environmental things, but we’re really getting in to all of those things right now – more environmentally conscious.” She stresses, “And that puts MATA as a major player in that.”

“We want people in the downtown to be able to park their car,” Hudson says. “We’ve accomplished that.” With the terminals on each end of downtown, people park their car, hop on the trolley and ride along the trolley line.

Another example of helping to make Memphis more sustainable, is helping to provide service to special events at the Fed Ex Forum. Hudson says, “They said we have no parking and people wouldn’t park here, but a major components of all of that, they pulled all of that together with MATA.

“It was funny, some of the people in the outlying area never rode the bus, rode the bus in and we were kidding about it, they didn’t even know you push the back door, you just hit it and it opens up. They didn’t realize it, so they’re just standing back by the back door,” he laughs. “But they had a wonderful experience you know and that was getting them involved in public transit.

“All the things that we do and all the things we’re involved in, I can’t give it justice because there’s just so much,” he continues. “Sometimes we start at 6 o’clock in the morning time. Eight o’clock and we’re still here.”

Hudson says they’re really proud of the Main Street Riverfront and the Madison Street Trolley. “We transport about a million people a year around.” He continues, “It’s only part of a plan, a regional rail plan. The next corridor is hopefully going to be downtown to the airport. That has not gained any momentum in the last couple years, and that really may be because financially, it’s a sore state right now; they have other priorities instead.” He adds, “It’s not dead at this point, but it will take some more work.”

Current Projects at MATA

At this time there are a number of projects the people at MATA are focusing on – a new transfer center, new timetables, an intelligent transportation center and a short-range transit plan. Speaking of the projects they’re working to accomplish, Hudson adds with a laugh, “One of the other goals was dedicated funding, and I think that’s by the wayside.”

The South Intermodal Terminal is being built near the airport and they partnered with Greyhound to move from downtown and to operate out of this terminal. It’s expected to be completed in early August, and at this time it is currently on time and under budget.

Burton says, “It’s a good development for that area. It’s close to the airport; we’re building it where we can have rail there if we wanted to add that component.”

Showing commitment to sustainability, MATA will be going for LEED certification for the project. “It’s the first government building in Shelby County that is going to have that,” says Fox.

About going for LEED certification, Fox says the planning department brought the recommendations to Mr. Hudson during the design stage. It was a little bit late, ideally it would have started at the very beginning he says, but after a little work with the architect, they were excited to do it. He also says that for operating costs, this facility is going to save them money in the long run.

“The people in the community are just really impressed and kind of surprised in some ways that we’re doing this, that we’re ahead of other public agencies in the county,” Fox says.

And for those attending APTA’s Bus & Paratransit Conference, Hudson points out that there is a technical tour of the facility for industry people to get a closer look.

Also in development is the installation of an ITS system. Hudson says it’s all about communication. And as he, Fox and Burton talk about it, he says, “It’s exciting!

“We’ve been trying to get a vehicle locater here for 25 years. It’s kind of old-school for everybody else, but it’s new for us, so we’re ready to take advantage of it like it just came out on the market.”

Burton says they currently do some counts now manually so this will help with efficiency. “Just knowing that real-time information that we’ve been trying to get for our system for more than a decade, to know that they’re actually starting installation on the vehicles …

“It’s going to happen before retirement!” she stresses.

Fox explains, “Alison and I keep trying to tell the technical folks, let’s focus at least partially on how the riding public is going to benefit from this. They’ll have real-time.”

He says they’ll have signage at the terminals and a cell phone app so riders can get a text with real-time information. “That’s going to be huge for us.”

And guiding MATA through its next period of growth will be the short-range transit plan. Hudson says it gives them an opportunity to bring stakeholders from all over the community together. “This gives us an opportunity to hear what they have to say, see if they can give us some input into where should MATA go in the future.” He adds, “It gives them an opportunity to say I’ve had an input in where MATA’s going for the future.”

Burton says Memphis still focuses a lot on personal automobiles, parking, those types of things and that the short-range plan will help to put the focus on public transportation in a way that it hasn’t been.

Hudson says, “We’ll line up stakeholders for them [the consultants] to talk to, meet and discuss. I’m looking forward to that and community meetings. It’s just a great opportunity for folks to come in.”

Transit Funding

When it comes to funding, Hudson says it’s about trying to get a piece of the pie in order to help move transit because there are so many needs for transit. And with fuel going up, it increases the costs and the budget. Funding everywhere is a universal problem at this time, he says.

“We’re hoping that the politicians in charge of all of this will understand the need for public transit and keep it in the forefront,” says Hudson. “The news is not good at this point and time; it’s really not. But we don’t stop working. We continue to try and take advantage of all of the outlets we have to offer.”

One thing that’s worked in their favor is that they’ve been fortunate enough to have an excellent lobbyist, Burton says. “We have been successful in past years for specific earmarks for certain projects, like the Madison project was full funding and it came in under budget and on time in March 2004.”

She explains, “Having that really keeps us connected to legislation. Having that direct communication helped us to know what is going on instead of relying on our state always and that’s why we’ve made that investment to have our own lobbyist.”

Hudson says they recently received a State of Disrepair grant and had $7 million to purchase buses. He stresses, “We depend on the Federal dollars that we get.”

I asked Hudson how he thinks things are now compared to in the past with funding and the political climate. He says, “It’s worse. The dollars are less, more competitive.

“If you look at the city, at the state, you look at the Feds, all of them are saying the same thing – there will be less dollars. And if there are less dollars starting at the top, there are going to have to be at the bottom.”

Adding to that, he says, is that the information isn’t flowing. So not knowing how much an agency is going to have to work with effects operations.

“The transit industry, from my experience, in the ’70s we really experienced a drop off and we fought and fought and we came back,” Hudson says. “We’re in a low down that I’ve never seen before. But I also think that with the people that we have and the fight in all of us, we’ll survive. We’ll survive.”

The Bus Show Comes to Memphis

“It took us a long time to get this conference,” Hudson stresses. In 1990 they hosted a conference before it was the Bus & Paratransit Conference, when there were still east and west conferences.

“We had a wonderful experience, but we always wondered why it was so hard to get it back in Memphis.” He continues, “When it finally came to Nashville, Mattie Carter said that’s enough.”

Burton says it will be a great time to expose APTA and the conference to their staff, to give more employees the opportunity to interact on a national level.

Of putting together the conference, she says, “I like working with the APTA staff. They’re very organized and have a checklist and they know what they want and they know how they want it, and it’s my job to plug in that local feel for things and that’s what we can do.

“I think people just want to come to Memphis to see what it’s all about. And beyond what we do, but the music, the culture, the people, the food.” She adds, “I hope people get a chance to experience that.”

“We want to make sure that we have our people around to make sure we give people directions and the conventions and tourism bureau, they’ve been involved since the conception, so we’re ready and you’re going to have a great experience,” Hudson says.

“We’re going to open up the gates, and we’re going to have a fantastic time.” He adds, “We’re not a part of anything that’s not spectacular, I can tell you that.”

Working with People

Doing something in the public has always appealed to Hudson, and when he talks about his start at MATA, he says the excitement is still here. “There’s always something different; it’s always different problems to solve. When you solve one, it will lead to another so you just continue to work on it.

“The other side of it,” he says, “is that you meet so many great people. People in management, and the customers themselves are so important. That what we thrive on, is trying to satisfy our customers.”

He says, “I know there is something to be able to stay in this position for a period of time. I enjoy it; like I said, it’s fun. I’ll leave when I get a break, but we’re really excited about this place.

“I can’t say it enough; I love people. And transportation is important to a lot of people.”