May 29--Shelia Williams helps lead the Memphis Bus Riders Union, a group that pressures the Memphis Area Transit Authority to provide better service. Starting next month, Williams will move from outside advocate to inside decision-maker.
Mayor A C Wharton has nominated Williams as one of nine volunteer board members with power to vote on MATA's budgets, routes, schedules, fares and contracts with vendors. If the City Council approves her appointment next week, she will become one of very few board members in recent years who have regularly used MATA services.
The city's public transit system historically has been weak, with most adults in the city relying on private cars and trucks. And MATA faces significant money problems -- it's currently operating at a deficit. The City Council will soon approve a contribution to MATA as part of the government's annual budget, and the funding amount will help determine future service levels.
Williams said she's passionate about improving MATA service. "If people can't get around, then they cannot improve the quality of their lives," said Williams, a 37-year-old single mother of five children ranging in age from one to 21.
She spoke with The Commercial Appeal by cellphone as she waited at a Downtown bus terminal and continued to speak as she boarded the number 52 bus to Raleigh. She was on her way home after a day at work helping students with disabilities at Southwest Tennessee Community College, where she recently graduated with an associate degree in psychology. She's hoping to transfer to another school, possibly LeMoyne-Owen College or the University of Memphis. With transfers, her daily commute takes about an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes each way.
She said poor people who want to educate themselves, go to work and handle basic errands like shopping and seeing the doctor can't do anything without transportation, and social services such as job training and support for disadvantaged youth mean nothing if people can't get to them.
Williams said she depends on a system in which buses sometimes run late or don't show up at all. She said she doesn't have a vehicle because she can't afford the costs of buying and maintaining one. And she said the society is far too willing to write off people like her.
The Memphis Bus Riders Union was formed in 2012, shortly after a public meeting at which customers complained about problems including leaky buses, fare increases and route reductions. Since then, the group has organized demonstrations and shown up at public meetings. Wharton's office reached out to Williams, and she met the mayor for a screening interview earlier this year. The mayor's office forwarded her name to the City Council, which gave preliminary approval to Williams and other MATA board members at a May 20 meeting, and a final vote is set for Tuesday.
Leaders of the bus riders union are happy to have one of their own on the MATA board. "It really does make a difference in understanding the weight and the gravity of voting on route changes, or having input from riders," said Bennett Foster, who along with Williams serves as co-chair of the Memphis Bus Riders Union. He's also active in the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, which has played a central role in supporting the new organization.
MATA's top executive Tom Fox welcomes having a regular bus-user on the board. "It gives a firsthand experience of what the passengers deal with on a day-to-day basis," said Fox, who is acting as MATA's leader following the December retirement of William Hudson.
Fox recalls only one former board member who rode MATA, Cliffie Pugh, who used MATAPlus, the door-to-door service for the disabled.
Williams said she's open to the concept of putting security guards on buses, and she argues that students should ride for free. And she'll have a vote on the selection of MATA's next director -- a search is ongoing, and Fox is a candidate. If approved by the City Council, Williams and other new MATA board members will participate in their first meeting June 23.
Copyright 2014 - The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.