commentary (2007-05)

The tedious evolution of that which does not yet exist

In Transit

by Matt Edens

Few things in downtown Knoxville's recent redevelopment history have been as aptly named as the long discussed, much moved transit center. In perpetual motion ever since the idea's inception--with stops at damn near every street corner in downtown--the transit center has hazy origins in the Ashe administration when a few mass-transit advocates started batting around the idea of a climate-controlled waiting area to compliment the existing downtown transfer point at Summer Place, sometime in the mid-'90s. That's when I first heard of it, at least. The assumed site, at that time, was where the new Market Square parking garage now stands, or on the Daylight Building block. And I'm pretty sure that the concept was rather modest in its embryonic stage, without the massive bus-barn of the current incarnation.

But like a lot of things involving downtown, the idea languished until late in Victor's watch, when the city was trying to kick-start the rejuvenation of Market Square. Kinsey-Probasco, the firm overseeing the project, proposed anchoring the redevelopment with a multi-screen cinema modeled on downtown Chattanooga's Bijou Theater. Opened in 1997 and operated by Carmike Cinemas, the highly successful Bijou is built into the lower floors of CARTA's Shuttle Park North. A parking garage with a bus stop attached, it serves as the northern terminus of the electric shuttle line that, well, shuttles back forth across downtown Chattanooga's Broad and Market Street axis (a similar bus stop/parking garage adjacent to the Chattanooga Choo-Choo serves as the southern terminus). Connecting the city's revitalized riverfront, downtown core and rapidly redeveloping South Side, the shuttles are a critical component of downtown Chattanooga's success.

Combining downtown Knoxville's theater with a similar bus station concept raised the possibility of using Federal transit money to help pay for the facility, particularly the parking garage Kinsey-Probasco originally envisioned as part of the cinema complex. The idea was forwarded to Washington, and Congressman Duncan helped secure the dollars. But somewhere along the line, the transit component of the cinema started driving the bus, so to speak.

Envisioned as the hub of the city's entire bus system, which Chattanooga's Shuttle Park decidedly isn't, designers of the Knoxville Cinema/Transit Center ran headlong into a huge problem: how to accommodate eight movie screens and some thirty buses on the same cramped site. First the parking component was ditched (sensible, since there's another city-owned garage out back), then the cinema and transit center were "decoupled," as the phrase went, and the bus station began being tentatively parked all over downtown. First there was the State Street site--which eventually went south, along with the forlorn hope of shaking the feds down for a parking garage. Then came the study of Main, Depot and Church.

The current preferred site, astride James White Parkway along the Church Street Viaduct, actually intrigues me for several reasons. Developing "Ponte Vecchio" type buildings along downtown's viaducts seems like a viable way to reconnect downtown to surrounding neighborhoods. And perhaps no neighborhood is more in need of being reconnected to downtown than the area around the Coliseum. But I'm not entirely sure a bus station is the best way to go about it.

Nor am I quite sure that a $27 million transfer station is the best way to boost transit ridership. Since the Washington Avenue line ran right by my house, there was a time I used KAT buses fairly frequently, mostly for trips downtown and back. But once I began working out in Bearden, off Northshore Drive, I never bothered to take the bus, even though they ran within a couple blocks of the office. Transfers were part of the reason why. Not so much where I'd have to wait, but how long: up to 45 minutes, if I wanted to be on time for work (less, if I wanted to slink in a half-hour late). Homeward bound, since we worked until 6, I had two options: slip out almost an hour early if I wanted to catch the last bus that ran down Washington or leave at quitting time and walk the last seven blocks. Too bad that, instead of a Transit Center, Knoxville can't spend that $27 million on increasing the hours and frequency of service. Those Chattanooga shuttles, for instance, run every five minutes.