OP-ED: A Historic Federal Transit Administration Grant Boosts Innovation and Customer Impact

Dec. 27, 2022
Leaning into innovation while staying focused on foundational aspects of transit service has resulted in record amounts of federal funding that will further enhance transit in the Memphis area.

In the past year, the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) has made great strides, and we accomplished much of it by engaging and listening to our stakeholders. Not only must we keep the basics in the forefront: Excellent customer service, positive rider experience and well-equipped staff, but moving into transit practices of the future was necessary.

We made innovation a priority area, and in implementing creative strategies, we were in turn, awarded more resources to do that work.

We recently received multiple grants from the Federal Transit Administration totaling $139.8 million, the largest federal investment received in our 47-year history.

The investment of $76 million included $54 million dollars earmarked for a new operations and maintenance facility and $22 million to purchase clean electric buses. Nearly $64 million received earlier this year will be used for an innovation corridor bus rapid transit system, which will connect our downtown to the medical district and our flagship school, the University of Memphis, all high-traffic areas.

More important than the dollars themselves is the impact and change the funding will bring to our service area. It will improve transit services for our riders, as well as improve work settings for our employees. Additionally, it will allow us to further lean into innovation to enhance our operations and ultimately, boost the local economy and environment.

The grant came on the heels of another historic milestone in our organization and city overall when Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission each voted to grant multi-million dollar dedicated funding to MATA. While many other cities already receive dedicated funding from their local governments, we consider it a win and a healthy start to impact more residents.

To understand the weight of this total funding, let’s consider the challenges we’ve been navigating in recent years.

By and large, public transportation nationally had been underfunded. As CARES Act funds for pandemic support dwindled and ridership increased, the extreme need for increased funding was illuminated once again.

MATA is one of many public transportation agencies that experienced the effects of the national driver shortage brought on by the pandemic. A recent Transit Center report says more than nine in 10 transit agencies are having hiring challenges, with operators or drivers being the most difficult positions to fill. Nearly 75 percent of providers were forced to cut or delay services as a result.

To avoid reducing services, we leaned into innovation and sensible operations to meet our customers’ needs, becoming one of the first agencies nationwide to adopt on-demand transit, Ready! by MATA.

Operated in four areas of our service area, which is listed as the No. 1 car-dependent metro area in the country, well over 100,000 trips have been booked in less than one year. A neighboring city in our tri-state area has adopted on-demand services to bridge its own transit gaps. There are requests from residents for expansion to more areas, and dedicated funding will make that possible. Public transit is not a last resort but a necessary component of a vibrant and forward-moving community.

Aligned with our focus on innovation, we also recently partnered with LeMoyne-Owen College, the city’s only Historically Black College and University (HBCU) for the first ever Go901 Tech Team. The Go901 Tech Team will answer customers’ requests for tech support. This team of students will help Memphians navigate new technologies, enabling them to use the Go901 app to perform various key tasks including scheduling, purchasing of tickets and fares and even track their rides.

In preparation for even more innovative strategies, including the rollout of a new fare card system, we are engaging in community feedback to ensure they understand how we are spending the funds awarded to us and grant their request to transition them into transit practices of the future.

The community, as well our industry peers, have welcomed the innovation with open arms. Our team received a coveted Innovation Award at the COMTO Industry Awards this summer, and I was honored to receive the Urban CEO of the Year by the Tennessee Public Transportation Association. More than recognition, the proof of our efforts is MATA customers attending to their needs–going to work, school, health visits and to improve their quality of life.


Gary Rosenfeld is CEO of Memphis Area Transit Authority. 

About the Author

Gary Rosenfeld | CEO, Memphis Area Transit Authority

Gary Rosenfeld is the chief executive officer of the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA). MATA provides bus, rail, paratransit and other transit services for the Greater Memphis area. Rosenfeld’s main focus is to rebuild the transit system into a world class mass transit provider while implementing new transit innovations and restarting the vintage trolley car system.

Rosenfeld has more than 30 years of experience in transit as an executive, strategist and advisor. His most recent experience includes serving as Interim Chief Executive Officer and Chief Administrative Officer at MATA. Prior to joining MATA, he was responsible for the nationally recognized transportation programs at Yosemite National Park.

Some of his major accomplishments during his tenure there include having the first 100 percent diesel electric hybrid transit fleet in the nation, receiving an environmental achievement award from the United States Department of the Interior for reduction in the consumption of petroleum fuel, having 100 percent of the Park’s motor coach fleet and transit fleet meeting ADA requirements and proposed passenger safety requirements, and ensuring that the Park’s Passenger Transportation Program became 100 percent certified as clean diesel and clean idle.