Pulling Out the Stops

Let's reconnect our old trolleyburbs with... trolleys

On our way to Krutch Park the other day, the dogs and I passed two couples studying the map at the trolley stop on Union Avenue. On the way back, they were still lingering in front of the former Macleod's location near the stop.

"Are you guys trying to catch a trolley?" I asked.

They were. So I told them that trolley stop was only served by the Late Night route. When I asked which trolley they wanted, they replied, "Any of them." I sent them to wait at the other end of Krutch Park for the next Blue Line.

I've done the same as them in other cities. Having some time to kill, I've hopped on trolley/streetcar systems just to take a look around the place and get an idea of what was nearby. And I guess our free system seems well worth the price for that sort of thing.

A term that you hear a lot around here is "trolleyburbs." It refers to the near-in neighborhoods around our center city. As I hear it, the reasons for the original rail streetcar systems in Knoxville were to sell real estate in these very neighborhoods by offering easy transportation, and to get folks from the city to then-destination attractions like Chilhowee Park and Fountain City.

Over the past few years, downtown has become a regular destination for thousands of area residents. Now the city is concentrating efforts on nearby South Waterfront development as well as giving new consideration on the opposite side of downtown to what's being called Downtown North. Consider our poor air quality, ever-increasing gas prices, a new transit center, along with the city's focus on green initiatives, and it seems like the perfect time to take another look at our trolley system.

Earlier this month, city officials and the mayor met with with members of the Knoxville Area Transit Authority. Ridership has been climbing for over a decade, up 10 percent last year alone. And with gas prices on the rise, that trend is expected to continue. Several ideas were considered, but I didn't hear anything about our trolleys. Maybe that's because City Council would have to reconsider what's on the books before the topic would even be open to discussion.

The trolley system was established by city ordinance. And that ordinance dictates that the system can only operate within the CBID, the University of Tennessee, and Fort Sanders, and to the Civic Coliseum garage. Now, I'm sure that made sense at the time. But a lot has changed since then, and a lot more is expected to change in the near future.

Many of our trolleyburbs have experienced newfound popularity in recent years. And current efforts by the city are set to build on that. While light rail may not be in our immediate future, reworking our trolley system to serve the density building up again around downtown ought to be.

Imagine if trolleys connected all of our close-in neighborhoods with downtown. A frequent route running out Broadway and circling back down Central Street would give easy access to the residents of Old North, Fourth and Gill, and others. Another crossing the river and reaching Island Home and/or Scottish Pike would make getting downtown for dinner and a movie a breeze.

The Orange Line already provides service along Cumberland Avenue to inhabitants of both Fort Sanders and UT campus. Wouldn't reaching the other direction a similar distance to Five Points be an equally practical route? It would connect to the planned transit center and maintain the link to the Civic Coliseum, while enhancing service in neighborhoods to the east.

Another thing that has changed since City Council established the current system is that downtown doesn't roll up the sidewalks at five o'clock. With the revival of the Tennessee Theatre, the Bijou, and the addition of the new cinema, downtown's nightlife has to be considered when thinking about service hours and frequency. If UT students can catch the Late Night Line on 15-minute intervals with its last outbound run from downtown at 3:30 a.m., don't taxpayers investing in homes around downtown deserve the same chance to catch a late lift home as the show gets out?

There's nothing cheap about any of this. But reconsidering the legislation on the books ought to be something we can afford. If the city is serious about improving our mass-transit system, revisiting the trolley ordinance and creating some flexibility just makes sense.

It would have been nice if I could have directed our visitors to catch a ride that would have shown them some of the wonderful architecture and cozy neighborhoods that make up the core of our city. As it was, they had to settle for a trip by a parking garage.