By Erica R. Williams
With the Frayser Exchange Club meeting as the setting, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris on Thursday pitched his plan to fight poverty by way of a new transit proposal.
Harris has proposed directing $10 million for Memphis Area Transit Authority by adding a fee for households with three or more cars.
“I know that transit advocacy is something that doesn’t touch everyone in this room, but it should,” Harris said to the audience that consisted of mostly community members, local advocates and activists.
The mayor pointed to data that he said shows transit riders make up about 2 percent of the county’s close to one-million population. Despite the low percentage, Harris said those who use public transportation still deserve someone to be their voice.
“The 2 percent of our community who take transit everyday are mostly minority, are mostly low-income and mostly don’t have access to a vehicle. If we can help the 20,000 and shave time off of their commute, we can change their lives and the households.”
Although the plan isn’t finalized, preliminary suggestions would require households with more than three vehicles to pay a $145 sustainability fee for their third car. According to the proposal, the increased fee would affect about 17 percent of Shelby County’s demographic.
“The point is very few people have a third, or more vehicles. So, the vast majority of our community will see no change in their taxes. No changes in their registration fee,” Harris pointed out.
Harris’s initial plan was presented to the County Commission earlier this month and required fees for every vehicle after the second one, but Harris said that plan has changed.
“We don’t have to tax additional vehicles because the current estimates to raise $10 million don’t include a fourth or fifth vehicle,” Harris said. “That’s a shift from the original proposal because of feedback.”
During the meeting, residents shared stories of long commutes and inconvenient bus rides. Community leader Charlie Caswell said he once spent five hours getting back and forth on a bus.
“It’s not the best plan, but it’s an idea I can support.”
The plan was also met with clarifying questions from some attendees. Regenia Dowell, president of the Frayser PTSA, asked how the changes would affect the clerk’s office.
Shelby County Clerk Wanda Halbert, who has previously said she and her team were blindsided by the mayor’s proposal, attended the community meeting.
“We’re going to be working with the mayor and his team and working with the state of Tennessee to make sure that this is something that we’re able to do,” Halbert said.
“Additionally, what resources may be needed in our office. The mayor knows about a number of challenges that we already have and are working through, including some offices that are not ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant.”
MATA Chief Executive Officer Gary Rosenfield also attended and addressed the crowd, which mostly offered support of the plan.
“A lot of the times when MATA is going through funding and get service cuts, it’s neighborhoods like Frayser and Raleigh that see these cuts,” he said. “If MATA had more resources like what the mayor is proposing, it could help stop this cycle of cuts that we have to do every year.”
Harris reiterated that the plan is ‘transparent’ and is subject to change based on community feedback. Because he hopes to garner more input from residents, Harris said he doesn’t want the County Commission to vote on the plan this year. He hopes to get commission votes by February 2020.
This article originally appeared in the New Tri-State Defender