MATA wants Light Rail System to help transport Ford Megasite workers

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A new mode of transportation could be coming to Memphis soon.

This is brought on by the $5.6 billion Ford Megasite being built in Haywood County.

That’s about 45 miles north of Memphis.

Different organizations are quickly preparing for the opening of the site.

Memphis Area Transit Authority, or MATA, is one of those organizations.

The transit company wants to establish a Light Rail System to help transport future workers to Ford’s Blue Oval City. It would also help in keeping major roadways in Memphis from getting overwhelmed with an increase in drivers heading to the site.

FOX13 spoke to Gary Rosenfeld, MATA CEO, about the plans that are still in the very early planning stages.

“The megasite is going to generate a considerable amount of congestion along the I-40 corridor,” said Rosenfeld. This is why Rosenfeld said a Light Rail System could help with that potential issue.

What is a Light Rail System? Rosenfeld explains the concept.

“Light rail is typically powered by an overhead catenary for example, similar to our trolly system here in Memphis. Typically, you see them powered by electricity,” Rosenfeld explains.

Several major cities have Light Rail Systems.

Rosenfeld points to cities like Washington, DC, New York, and Charlotte.

This has been talked about before in Memphis. Rosenfeld told FOX13 that how many people live in an area, can determine if a rail system is necessary.

“In order to have rail you have to have density. This potential site will bring together enough people that it might just meet the definition of density needed to justify going into a rail system,” said Rosenfeld.

The interest for a rail system is there according to Rosenfeld, but it’s about justifying the need for one, and the cost.

“People have been regularly asking about extending the services that we have. In order to justify the capital expenditure, because it’s not cheap. In order to justify the capital expenditure, you have to be able to generate an adequate passenger passthrough or flow,” said Rosenfeld.

How much could a project like this cost?

According to railsystem.net, the cost could vary but typically ranges from $15 million to $100 million per mile.

FOX13 asked Rosenfeld if MATA knows how much this potential project would cost in Memphis.

“Not worthy of discussion at this particular point. You have to do a lot more studying before you can come out and say this is the price range. We’re not at that point yet,” said Rosenfeld.

That begs the question, where will MATA get the money for this project if approved? Rosenfeld said the transit company would turn to local, state, and federal leaders for potential grants.

“Other cities have been successful of obtaining and we would get into the line if you will, hoping to convince the government to invest in our project. It’s all about relationships. MATA, we have a great relationship with our FTA regional office in Atlanta. We’ve got a great relationship with our FTA regional office in Washington, DC,” said Rosenfeld.

This is idea is still in the very early planning stages.

Rosenfeld said a planning team hasn’t been established yet. That is something they will seek funding for as well.

“Would love to see a few million dollars move in this direction so that we can do that planning. It’s expensive,” said Rosenfeld.

Tennessee Department of Transportation, or TDOT, could also be a potential funding source.

A spokesperson for TDOT told FOX13, MATA leaders have reached out to talk about the rail system proposal.

TDOT said they need to do a transit study all around Blue Oval City before deciding what plan of action to take. To build the rail system, Rosenfeld has been garnering inspiration from cities like Washington, DC, New York, and Charlotte who Rosenfeld said, has seen a drastic increase in development since establishing their light rail system.

“They’ve invested about $2 billion in their light rail system, and they’ve seen about $20 billion worth of private sector investment within the corridor. Communities that invest in light rail systems like that have a tendency to out-perform communities that don’t from an economic perspective,” said Rosenfeld.

Rosenfeld said establishing a light rail system has other benefits outside of transporting future Ford workers to the new site. Rosenfeld said it could bring in more development. He points to the Amazon headquarters search that occurred a few years ago.

“That’s one of the things they were asking. What type of transit system do you have to support this type of growth in your community,” Rosenfield said.

Blue Oval City and the Ford Megasite are set to open in 2025.

This would give MATA around 3 years to get a rail system up and operational if that transit option is approved. FOX13 asked Rosenfeld if that is enough time to build the system.

“We could stand up something in as short as 6 months. I’ve got people on the team that has done it that quickly. If you’re really going to do it and build out stations, that’s a multi-year process to get to that point. Would it be the final product? No. We could easily have an interim program done, but we have to get everybody to agree that this is what we need to do, and are willing to make the investment,” said Rosenfeld.

If a light rail system is not approved, Rosenfeld said MATA is working on a few backup options, including a commuter bus system.

“We could have a really good commuter bus set up in less than a year with a good commuter service allowing people to not have to drive and get people out there to Stanton and other points along the way and be able to move a high volume of people and have a high impact on the congestion.”

As mentioned before, this option is still in the very early stages.

FOX13 will continue to follow the plan developments and provide updates when they are available.