Thursday, August 07, 2008

Cheap Taxes Fuel Unsustainable Lifestyle

It's widely predicted that climbing gas prices will force suburbanites out of their cars and back to city neighborhoods. Shelby County is likely to be one of the last places where it will happen.

That's because our community's inequitable tax structure and MATA's poor reputation combine to stall changes in lifestyles here. As a result, if and when a change comes, it will apparently be fueled by gas costing more than $6 a gallon.

That's how much Shelby Countians say they would have to pay to consider taking MATA, according to polling taken in connection with Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton's Sustainable Shelby program. In fact, among people who say they prefer a suburban lifestyle, the price was $6.69 per gallon.

Gassed Up

The fact that gas prices will have to increase at least 50 percent for MATA to start looking attractive may say as much about the transit system's reputation as it does about Shelby Countians' concern for their carbon footprints. It also indicates that the record public transit ridership that is occurring across the U.S. won't happen here.

The poll results are backed up anecdotally by Leadership Memphis' annual experiment requiring its 80-member class to travel to a meeting using public transportation. The experience is always an eye-opener, because most of the class members are among the 92 percent of Shelby Countians who travel in their personal cars. In this yearly experiment, trolleys get higher marks than buses, but the experience does little to capture new transit riders.

Comments fall into broad categories like the need for better customer service and cleaner, better-maintained buses. The class is also asked to make their plans on the MATA website, and although it is markedly improved in the past two years, it still falls way short of the industry standard in Portland, Oregon, where the TriMet website gives bus locations in real time.

Riding The Rails

Here, MATA's Trip Planner function at least no longer promises to reply within 48 hours. Trip recommendations are now immediate, although one recommended travel plan called for a rider from the Med-ical Center to Balmoral to spend the night at the Lamar and Barron intersection.

Despite its apathy toward MATA travel, Shelby Countians are enthusiastic about light rail, which is on the transit company's agenda. Almost 80 percent of Shelby County residents said they would likely ride light rail if it were available. Of course, an effective light rail system is light years and more than $1 billion away, meaning that MATA buses will remain the backbone of public transit here for the foreseeable future.

A MATA official acknowledges that the agency must abandon the lethargy that comes from a ridership that is viewed largely as a captive audience with no other options. To expand its customer base, he says that MATA has to improve its rider experience and reliability, or even $6-a- gallon gas may not put more people in its seats.

Taxing Situation

But more than MATA stands in the way of a behavioral shift in Shelby County. In the past 30 years, homebuyers' attitudes were shaped by the disparity of the tax burden between Memphians and non-Memphians. With a tax structure that pushed the costs of sprawl onto Memphis taxpayers (who paid for the lion's share of sprawl in the form of new roads and new schools while still footing the bill for museums, parks, libraries, and arenas that should have only been on the larger county tax base), suburban residents simply do not face the financial realities that are driving suburbanites back inside other cities.

The difference in taxes here pays for an awful lot of gas. For example, the tax bill for someone living in a $150,000 house in the unincorporated area of Shelby County (or Lakeland) is about $1,300 less than a Memphian's. In other words, even if gas prices rise $2 a gallon, these suburban taxpayers can drive about 12,750 miles, or the equivalent of a 50-mile weekday commute, before the cost of gas is more than the amount they save from "county taxes."

In Germantown, the tax savings from living there instead of Memphis is about $700 a year, enough to pay for about 7,000 miles a year. In other words, the savings pay about half the cost of the additional gas for a 50-mile commute.

As a result of this lifestyle subsidy, non-Memphis residents have little incentive — yet — to move to closer-in Memphis neighborhoods, and the softness in the suburban home market may make it tough to move anyway. While the tax savings may pay for a lot of gas for suburbanites, the fact is that the rising cost of fuel is locking them into place because it's making their homes less attractive to buyers.

Published previously as City Journal column in July edition of Memphis magazine.


Michael Roy Hollihan said...

As someone who actually has been using MATA for his daily transportation needs for more than 15 years now, I'm still amused at the near-total cluelessness of most Memphians and almost all Shelby Countians to the horror show that is MATA.

The CA's recent story about John Moore (Chamber of Commerce prez) using MATA one morning was simultaneously priceless, insulting and flabbergasting in its cluelessness. Getting Wi-Fi on busses is what will turn around MATA's ridership in the upper classes? Pfft. I would so love to see a half-dozen people try to use laptops during rush hour, in between all the fat people and the bags other riders carry and the folks who are just generally angry at anyone who seems to be better off than they are.

The list of daily problems for MATA riders is far too long to list here. Try arrival times that are whimsical, missed connections that mean you can be stranded somewhere as much as 90 minutes, and busses that just never show up at all. Or routes that say "Summer" (for example) but you have to be very careful which part of Summer you're on or you'll never see a bus at all!

MATA is far worse than you come close to painting it. Try riding it for a week -- I dare you! Seriously. I'm calling you out. Instead of telling folks to use MATA for our own good, actually live what you preach and then tell us how it went.

We'll NEVER see action on MATA because the people who might force change never use it. It's just that simple.

Midtowner said...

Mike, I have to agree with you. I've tried to use MATA on several occasions. If I'm going downtown, it's not a problem ... almost anywhere else not on Poplar is a major headache.

I'd like to see wi-fi for the whole city! lol

SCM is forgetting something, due to MATA gross incompetence, even if someone were to move back into the city from a suburb (like I did), that person would still need a car to get to work. So the gas bill would only be reduced, not eliminated. But even if MATA weren't so incompetent, there would still be the fair to use the bus. So add that to the costs of living here.

Also, insurance for both the car and the house would probably be higher in the city that in the county or one of the burbs, so add that to the cost of moving back here.

Increase in crime rate and poor schools ... more security and possibly a private school for junior ... so add that to the cost of moving back here.

Fortunately, I have a small house and low taxes even tho I live in the city. I didn't go for the expensive midtown homes so it worked out for me ... and my kid is grown so no problem there for me. My car ... it's old and just has liability on it.

As far as the idea of "regional taxes" in order to tax those outside of the city ... that idea is DOA. Even I, as a city resident, oppose it.

Look at from their point of view, would you feed money into our current city government? Naw.

Zippy the giver said...

I would like to see SCM get on the bus for a week and make a report.
Great post, Hollihan!

Smart City Consulting said...


Great post. Any ride on the bus says volumes about their business model that accepts the premise that its customers don't have any other options and don't require quality service.

You make a great point about the people who can force change don't use the bus. We were thinking this same thing the other day, but it was related to schools.

Zippy the giver said...

You mean they aren't riding the bus to school, or, the people who can force change at MCS don't use MATA, or, although both are true, I'm kidding.
Maybe a list of people who can force change at MATA posted here is in order to be more serious.

Does SCM have that list?

Michael Roy Hollihan said...

Thanks for the response, SCM. My challenge while humorously offered is serious. Try it for one week. Don't alter your activities or schedule to compensate, but try seeing how well you can live your life, depending on MATA.

I think it would be seriously eye-opening both for you and your many readers.

Zippy the giver said...

Really. who else would we trust to provide a well written report that is NOT slanted in favor of either side, customer or provider?