It's been just over two years since the steel-wheeled trolleys stopped running down Main Street. Talk to local business owners in the area and they will tell you that things haven't been the same since. Recently, the South Main Association invited Ron Garrison, President of MATA, to speak to Downtowners about progress with the trolleys.
Garrison shared an update not only on the progress that's been made, but also the hard work that goes into it. According to Garrison, the trolleys are being rebuilt essentially from the ground up to guarantee safety (read: no more fires!). He shared countless before and after photos of the trolleys. On the "before" side we saw broken, filthy, worn down trolley parts. We saw pictures of loose wiring and broken seals that screamed "hazard!". In the "after" shots, we saw pristine, tight, organized machine parts.
"We're putting in safety features that will be the new standard for the country," says Garrison.
Memphis will have the first trolley system in the country to be built out with low voltage wiring.
There's also new interior lighting, fireproof insulation, and outward facing doors to allow for faster egress in all the trolleys.
But it's been tough work making these improvements, and ensuring safety comes with lots of bureaucracy. There are 181 required activities to complete a total restart safety certification. These activities have over 300 documents and nearly 40 comprehensive plans, which must be developed and approved by MATA staff and a certified engineer. They then go back and forth between state and federal transit authorities. Garrison and his team are in regular communication with all the authoritative bodies involved, but there's not much that can speed up the process.
When all is said and done, Memphis will have at least 11 trolleys, with plans to add another 9 trolleys as funding becomes available. MATA is planning to roll them out in phases. In Phase 1, MATA will release two trolleys to serve Main Street. Garrison says we can expect a carnival celebration when these two trolleys start back in action.
One of these trolleys was purchased for $1M with funding provided by the city, and the other was an original Memphis trolley that has been repaired by Garrison and his team. The remaining 9 trolleys in the works will replace buses over time as they are ready.
Why go through the hassle of a rebuild and not buy all of them? According to Garrison, a brand new trolley is $2.3M to $2.5M! An already refurbished vintage trolley will set you back about $1M to $1.3M. But Garrison's team can rebuild one for about $550K to $800K.
"With less staff and less money, we're doing it faster and more methodically than anywhere in the country" boasts Garrison. But in the process, some are putting in 60-80 hours a week, and over the last several years, MATA has seen nearly 50% turnover of experienced Trolley System staff.
The 2 trolleys that will be released as part of Phase 1 are "95-97% complete" according to Garrison, but he was reticent to tell us how long remains. After prodding, he reluctantly gave "hopefully sooner than a year."
We all owe Garrison and his team at MATA much appreciation for their tireless work restoring Memphis' trolleys and helping revitalize local businesses and tourism in the process. Thanks to them, by this time next year we should all be able to ride the trolleys up and down Main Street again.