Transit in Transition

Center city KAT service could once again drive development

My colleague Michael Haynes made a pretty good point in his Shot of Urban column last week, suggesting that the Knoxville Transit Authority and the city consider expanding downtown's trolley service outside the Central Business Improvement District. As someone who has always argued that the success of downtown ultimately depends on the success of the center city as a whole, I second the notion. Redevelopment is already rippling out from downtown. And many of the folks making a home in Fourth and Gill, Old North, Parkridge and elsewhere consider their proximity to downtown a plus (which may explain while you'll often see them sitting at a café table on Market Square, or perched on a Gay Street barstool).

Unfortunately, Haynes' piece appeared the same day that KAT was considering a slate of proposed route reductions and fee increases. And the cutbacks are a result of the same crisis that has more and more folks considering transit for the first time: the rising cost of fuel.

KAT's response to the dilemma, to a certain extent, mimics that of the rest of America. "Suburbs a Mile too Far For Some," said the headline of a June 17 Wall Street Journal story about the increasing shift towards urban living in many American markets. Gas prices, proximity to transit, and general walk-ability were all cited as factors nudging people closer into town. America, in general, is looking askance at long commutes.

So, too, is KAT. Buried among such belt-tightening proposals as cutting the Late Line and discontinuing Sunday service, the transit authority has also proposed doing away with the Halls and Farragut Express services. The "park and ride" services are relatively popular, but like the commutes they replace, both burn a lot of fuel, being two of the longest routes KAT serves. (Two longer Oak Ridge routes are subsidized by ORNL, a fact commuters who relied on KAT's suburban park and ride services might want to mention to both Knox County and the Town of Farragut.)

In light of such cutbacks, increased service within the center city might seem like a nonstarter. But is that necessarily the case? As Haynes' piece mentioned, Knoxville's original, private streetcar companies were closely tied to real estate speculation. Fares, much as today, made up only a small percentage of revenue. The rest came from selling the real estate along the streetcar lines. And there was as much overlap between the boards of the old streetcar companies and local development interests as exists today on MPC.

Transit, due to the current fuel crunch, could once again become a development driver for the city. The success of Fourth and Gill and elsewhere has already proven that the market places a premium on the proximity to downtown that these neighborhoods offer. Increasing the level of transit service, particularly the flexibility offered by more frequent runs, would make center city real estate that much more desirable—and more valuable. And unlike service outside the city limits, that added value would contribute additional property tax revenue to city coffers.

Once again, the notion is not without precedent. Cities such as Portland, Denver, and even, in the heart of NASCAR country, Charlotte have already seen their transit investments spur additional private housing development along the transit lines. Nationally, the non-profit transit advocacy group Reconnecting America estimates that the number of households near transit stations will more than double, from six to 15 million by 2030.

Typically, light-rail enthusiasts cite examples like Portland and Charlotte to justify the expensive investments in track and other infrastructure. They do have a point. Rail lines are pretty permanent and provide some security to the developers making private investment. But I'm not entirely sure that the other half of the rail enthusiasts' argument—that middle-class commuters are more likely to ride trains than buses—is necessarily true in today's brave new world of $4 gas and spiking transit ridership. m