Unclear if $5M enough to save Memphis monorail

Published: Jun. 8, 2022 at 11:19 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 9, 2022 at 12:15 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Money for the monorail is music to the ears of everyone who longs for the Mud Island Park tram to move again.

The Memphis City Council approved millions of dollars this week to make the repairs--but it’s not that easy.

The Mud Island monorail is unique, not another one built like it on the planet. And it’s old and very broken.

Last year during the pandemic, engineering firm Schwager Davis performed a comprehensive inspection at the request of Memphis River Parks Partnership, the group in charge of maintaining Mud Island, and the same group overseeing the $61 million renovation of Tom Lee Park.

The Schwager Davis report details just how much work the monorail needs in order to transport people safely and securely.

Walk into the entrance of Mud Island Park from Front Street, and you’ll quickly notice the escalator is broken, the elevators don’t work and the beloved monorail is covered in dust, cobwebs and trash.

The once-popular attraction that was featured in the Tom Cruise blockbuster “The Firm” hasn’t operated since 2018.

Chandra Johnson and Michael Jones brought their young daughters to Mud Island Park on Wednesday to visit a place that was so special to them when they were kids. It hurt their hearts to see the iconic tram sitting idle, but hearing Memphis City Council approved $5 million this week to fix it was heart-warming.

“I want it up and running bad,” Johnson told Action News 5, “because I want to take my children on it.”

“It’d be cool,” said Jones. “My brother rode on it on a field trip right before it closed, but I didn’t ever get a chance to, so I want to ride on it.”

Mud Island Park was designed by Roy Harrover, the same architect who designed Memphis International Airport and Rust Hall at the former Memphis College of Art in Overton Park. When it opened in 1982, the monorail shuttled passengers across the harbor, between downtown Memphis and the park.

The cars and motors were made in Switzerland and Italy. The monorail traveled one-third of a mile, suspended from a cable under a truss bridge, at a rate of seven miles per hour. It was then, and is now, a truly one-of-a-kind machine.

Paul Jordan, the engineer who built it, was the lone man who could fix it. Over the decades, he’d fly to Memphis, often in his own plane, land in the Wolf River Harbor, pull right up to the boat ramp at the park and stay a few days to make repairs.

That came to an end in 2018 when the monorail was shut down for good after passengers were stranded mid-ride and the Memphis Fire Department had to rescue them. The motor was shot, the parts unavailable and the cost to repair the once-grand suspension system skyrocketed.

Now it’s up to MRPP to get the iconic ride moving again after Memphis City Council on Tuesday, June 7, 2022, approved millions of dollars for maintenance and repairs.

MRPP told Action News 5:

“The Partnership is happy to see council making new money available for Mud Island Park. The park opened 40 years ago and has a long list of deferred capital expenses. We look forward to working with the City to develop a set of options for Mud Island’s future that can guide how to get the best value for Memphis out of this investment.”

The MRPP-commissioned audit of the monorail by Schwager Davis in 2021, found the “system was not able to be powered up” so it had to be “evaluated by visual inspection.”

They noticed broken windows, signs of abandonment, components no longer commercially available and, “one cabin had vagrants living in it.”

Action News 5 also saw vagrants inside the tram while getting fresh video of the monorail on Wednesday. The doors to the car were wide open, cigarette butts covered the floor, dirty clothing was strewn about and the strong smell of urine permeated the air.

A far cry from what Chandra and Michael remember when they visited as kids. They look forward to the day when the Memphis monorail and Mud Island Park shine brightly again.

“That’ll be a good idea because I really want to, you know, get on it,” Johnson said.

“I’d like to see more people come out because I know it can be a fun place to visit,” said Jones.

The Schwager Davis report says the monorail’s operating controls can be fixed to make it a highly reliable system that also meets code. One thing missing? The dollar amount needed to make all those repairs. MRPP said it will work with the City of Memphis to prioritize which repairs are most necessary, both for the monorail and the park itself.

Action News 5 followed up with MRPP about the problem with vagrants seeking shelter on the monorail cars.

MRPP park rangers patrol regularly and ask them to leave, according to spokesperson George Abbott, and if additional help is needed, MRPP reaches out to the Blue Suede Brigade (the Downtown Memphis Commission’s Hospitality and Safety Team) and to the Memphis Police Department.

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