TN: Downtown Ridership Drops After Trolleys Mothballed

June 19--Matt Schwimmer sought shelter from the afternoon sun under the awning of the Huling Avenue trolley stop on South Main.

As a lime-green bus drove up and opened its doors, the 23-year-old law student sighed, rubbed sweat from his forehead and said, "I wish it were a trolley."

Last week the Memphis Area Transit Authority substituted hybrid-electric buses for all trolleys while officials assess whether to refurbish the antique streetcars or buy new ones.

Schwimmer acknowledged the green buses are air-conditioned, more spacious and "ride a bit smoother than the trolleys." However, he still yearned for the cable-powered cars.

"It was just a cool little thing about the city," he said. "Living behind the (National) Civil Rights Museum and getting to school on trolleys gives you a feel for history."

Others share the downtowner's longing for nostalgia.

During the first week since the switch occurred, ridership on the buses that now travel the trolley routes is down by nearly 50 percent, according to Alison Burton, director of marketing and customer service at MATA.

In 2009, 1.1 million passengers rode the rails. Those numbers rose in the last two years to just under 1.5 million.

Trolley ridership peaks during the summer months."Most aren't complaining, but we are getting a lot of calls asking when the trolleys are coming back," Burton said.

Although many commuters primarily viewed the trolleys as a means of getting around, some rode them for leisure, Burton said, adding, "It's almost like an amusement-park ride. The buses just don't have the same attraction as the trolleys did."

When Elizabeth Lemmonds lived and worked Downtown, she hopped on the streetcars for practical reasons. But the mother of two also said, "There were plenty of times I rode the trolleys because I found them relaxing. Every time I take my 8-year-old daughter Downtown she asks to ride the Riverfront Loop. I don't imagine she will beg to get on one of the new buses."

Sharing in the local disappointment was a French Canadian tourist, Emily Lefebvre. She started her visit of the South in New Orleans and stopped in Memphis for three days on her way to Nashville.

"I was disappointed when I read the signs that said the trolleys were replaced," Lefebvre said while the bus she rode drove over the rails. "They had trolleys in New Orleans, but I didn't get a chance to ride them."

However, Lefebvre said the loss of the trolleys wasn't a big deal for her. She got off the bus near Beale and walked toward the busy street in hopes of seeing a live blues band.

Most of the nearly 10 million tourists who visit Memphis annually come to experience "the music history," said Regena Bearden, vice president of marketing and public relations for the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Stax Museum, Graceland and Sun Studios are just a few experiences people can only get while visiting Memphis," Bearden said. "Tourists love the trolleys, but (trolleys) not running won't deter visitors. Most will be happy to get from point A to point B using the new buses."

Even law-student Schwimmer said the hybrid buses were just as convenient as the trolleys.

"At least the buses prevent me from having to park and take me to class on time."

Copyright 2014 - The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.

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