It's Time to Revisit Knoxville's Trolley Routes

Gay Street is going to be a little quieter in a couple of weeks. With the opening of the new transit center on Church Avenue, the chains of buses that have roared down Gay over the past few years on their way out of downtown will be rerouted. In fact, except for those that cross Gay, downtown's premier street will have hardly any regular service at all other than the trolleys already in place.

I had expected that with the relocation of the central transfer point from Main Street to the new transit center our trolley routes would likewise see some alteration. The Church Avenue location is, after all, some blocks from Market Square. And frequent, convenient service from Gay Street and the Square seems like it would be a no-brainer. Yet it appears that no changes are planned for the system to address that. The only trolley route on the new map posted on Knoxville Area Transit's website depicts a 20-block roundabout ride from Gay and Clinch to the new center.

The legislation that created the Central Business Improvement District authorized that its scope include "improvement and support of existing trolley service." The CBID is no longer involved in the trolley program. But over the past few years, downtown has changed significantly, and perhaps it's time they gave trolleys another look. As is, our trolley routes are of marginal value in the context of today's downtown, or its goals for the future.

With the latest changes to the Knoxville Area Transit routes, the Green line, which offered transportation around Fort Sanders and the University of Tennessee campus, has been eliminated, leaving only the Orange and Blue Lines delivering regular service. The Blue is essentially a parking shuttle to move people between the Civic Coliseum parking garage and the south end of Gay Street during the work week. The Orange travels outbound and back along the Cumberland Avenue Strip connecting UT and downtown. Both do what they were set up to do fairly well. But neither does much for a city trying to strengthen ties between districts or provide consistent connectivity to the new transit center. And they're not very practical for getting around downtown.

For example, while you can hop on the Orange Line for a short ride along Gay from Main to Summit Hill Drive, getting back by trolley takes nearly half an hour and includes a round-trip tour of Cumberland Avenue. The Blue Line—the only one providing service to the new transit center—travels no farther north on Gay than Clinch Avenue. Neither offers service at night or on weekends. The Late Line, which shuttles students from the UT campus to the Old City on Friday and Saturday nights, runs from 6 p.m. until 3:30 a.m. when school's in session. None of which offers much in the way of travel within downtown.

All the trolleys really do is transport people in and out of the center city from a couple of areas, with those being dictated by statute. The legislation that provided for the trolley service states that it "shall be limited to the Central Business Improvement District... but including also the entire University of Tennessee campus area, including Fort Sanders, and the Auditorium-Civic Coliseum garages." The idea of running trolleys to our new Downtown North or to the south waterfront isn't even worth consideration without a change in the ordinance by City Council.

Meanwhile, imagine a downtown trolley service running continually from the Old City via Jackson, along Gay's 100 Block past downtown's residential core, then up Gay to Cumberland Avenue at the Bijou, then backtracking along Market Street to the Square before returning down Gay to the Old City. Imagine it running every few minutes, seven days a week, including nights. Giving someone the opportunity to shop or dine in the Old City with only a quick hop on a trolley to any of Gay Street's entertainment venues or Market Square would provide a lot of connectivity. Most of the people I know who might attend a show at the Bijou aren't likely to consider a parking spot near the Old City. And not many who are using the Market Square garage are going to include a visit to shops along Central in their time downtown. But a reliable, convenient trolley service could change that.

These days, the CBID's focus has shifted from jump-starting development in a moribund downtown to strengthening its success and the recruitment of new businesses. But it might be worth stepping back and looking at some of the programs that led to earlier progress. However walkable our center city is, on a freezing night in January, a stormy day in May, or muggy afternoon in August, a trek from one end of downtown to the other can be daunting. With those buses moving off Gay, the sound of more trolley bells might be a welcome addition.