Transit $60 Million in the Hole? Build a Monorail!


In case anyone believes that transit advocates haven’t completely lost their grip on reality, take a look at Memphis. The new CEO of the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) has “discovered” a $60 million deficit in the agency’s budget that “prior leadership was unaware of.”

How can you not be aware of a $60 million deficit? According to the new CEO, before she took the job, “MATA’s executive leaders did not have access to the company’s detailed financials.” Why not? How could anyone claim to be a leader and not demand access to financial information for the entity they were supposedly leading?

The deficit may be related to the fact that two of Memphis’ three streetcar lines have been out of service for a decade. In 2014, two streetcars caught fire and MATA suspended service until it could rehabilitate the system. In 2018, one line was restored to service but the other two remain inoperable. I bet it has something to do with a lack of money for this expensive and obsolete mode of transit.

The Memphis city council is making a completely rational response to this situation by contemplating a monorail for the city. No kidding — MATA can’t keep the streetcars running but people think the solution is to spend billions building a monorail. Memphis is known as the Music City and you can almost hear them play the Simpson’s monorail song.

“It would benefit our downtown,” claimed monorail advocate Lyle Lanley Patrick Price, because people “could hop on a monorail or light rail system and be anywhere in the city in just a few minutes and not have to worry if they have a car.” Dallas, Denver, Portland, and many other U.S. cities have spent billions building light rail yet not a single one of them has made it possible for people to take rail to “anywhere in the city in just a few minutes.” Before the pandemic, less than 3 percent of Memphis-area jobs were in downtown, so building rail to “benefit downtown” makes even less sense.

Monorail and light rail are ideas whose time passed long ago. Transit itself is pretty obsolete: only about half a percent of workers in the city of Memphis, and less than a third of a percent in the Memphis urban area, took transit to work in 2022. MATA should close its deficit by reducing service on lightly used lines, find a way to get tourists to pay for running its streetcars, and discourage people from fantasizing about fancy monorails and other rail transit that makes no sense in modern cities.

This piece first appeared at The Antiplanner.

Randal O'Toole, the Antiplanner, is a policy analyst with nearly 50 years of experience reviewing transportation and land-use plans and the author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.

Photo: Memphis’s transit agency can’t afford to keep its streetcars running and has a $60 million deficit, so naturally people want to build a monorail or light-rail system. Source: Flickr by Charles Phillips under CC 2.0 License.