insights (2006-24)

Downtown Transit Center Shuffle

Plans for building a new downtown transit center that have shuffled from site to site are shuffling once again.

Mayor Bill Haslam has called a halt to construction that was due to start imminently on the new facility on the State Street site that’s been a deathbed for everything from a baseball stadium to a jail to a glorified planetarium. In every case, the killer has been their cost.

In the case of the transit center, Haslam has concluded that the $27.5 million cost as presently planned is excessive. Equally important, he was startled by the Public Building Authority’s recent estimate that it would take up to $1 million a year to operate the new facility. That comes close to rivaling the Convention Center’s $1.5 million annual operating deficit as an elephantine strain on the city’s budget.

The biggest factor pushing the transit center’s cost over the top in Haslam’s view is the $6 million included for foundations, columns and a “pad” to support high-rise private development on air right above the proposed two-story, 330,000-square-foot bus station. Knox County agreed to transfer the State Street property, which it had acquired for a jail, to the city in return for the air rights. But when the county issued an RFP for high-rise residential development on them, no developers responded.

Both Haslam and County Mayor Mike Ragsdale are understood to now believe that the air rights approach hinders rather than helps private development on site. Scrapping the air rights support would permit a transit center to be built for something closer to the $18 million Haslam believes is reasonable. But the mayor questions whether putting a two-story building on one of downtown’s few remaining sites for large-scale development represents good urban planning. And there’s also the question of whether the county would permit its property to be used without getting something in return.

All of this is not to say that Haslam is wavering in his commitment to build a new facility that would serve primarily as a bus transfer center for Knoxville Area Transit. “We’re going to build a transit center,” the mayor asserts. “The question is whether to build it in the heart of downtown, taking two blocks and doing two stories, or do we build it on the edge of downtown where maybe there are some benefits associated with it.” Relocation would have little effect on KAT’s bus and trolley routes.

Depot Street, adjacent to the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, heads a list of alternate sites that Haslam has asked the PBA to evaluate. That location would facilitate a rail-bus link if passenger rail service materializes in the future as its champions, such as City Councilman Joe Hultquist, hope it will. The transit center was originally billed as an “intermodel” facility; but KAT’s board of directors has had its sights set on a prominent downtown location as a way to make a statement about the importance of public transportation in the here and now.

“PBA is going to come back with a list of alternative sites and then we’ll meet with the KAT board and make a decision hopefully soon about where we’re going to build it,” Haslam says. He insists the State Street site is still under consideration.

With 80 percent of the funding coming from the Federal Transportation Administration, the city has already spent about $3 million on transit center planning that started on the Gay Street site where the city’s new downtown movie theater is now going up and then shifted to the State Street site. Haslam concedes that much of the $3 million that went for environmental studies and FTA hoop-jumping exercises would be wasted if the city shifts to yet another site. He also acknowledges that, “We don’t know how the FTA will react if we change our minds again” but goes on to say, “We’ve got to make great long-term decisions, and that doesn’t mean we have to spend good money after bad.”

One reason for trying to bring the project in for $18 million is that’s all the city has garnered in federal funding, subject to a 10 percent local matching requirement. Haslam ventures that more federal money might be obtainable. But until recently the city had understood that the appraised value of the site could count toward satisfying its matching requirement, only to learn that it must be made in cash. So that’s almost another $1 million that the city would be out of pocket if it were to proceed with the $27.5 million project on which Haslam has blown the whistle.

Haslam also believes that redesign can cut the facility’s projected $1 million operating expenses in half. These expenses are mainly utilities (especially for climate control), maintenance and security. Downsizing the facility’s waiting area would seem to be imperative, but this doesn’t mean the mayor intends to leave bus riders shivering while they wait to make a transfer.

They may, however, be waiting a lot longer than the heretofore scheduled 2008 opening of the new facility before they can come in from the cold at KAT’s present outdoor transfer hub on Main Street in front of the City/County Building.