Ultimate Satisfaction: Imagining the Possibilities for Downtown's 2014

I don't know why it is that I'm always pleased to see an old year end and a new one begin. Maybe it's that I can put the events of the previous one behind me. I've always managed to rack up any number of regrets in any given year and January gives me a chance to archive all of that. Plenty of great stuff happens, too, as a general rule, that I'll remember with fondness. But for those life moments that I wish I could forget, a new year with a new name puts just a little more distance between me and them.

2014 still has that New Year smell, and January is the period that people who analyze retail call "the period of ultimate satisfaction." It's that time between when you get something new that you've been looking forward to, and before the "buyer's remorse" period that can follow. So for today, right now, this moment, the year still seems ripe with possibility. I think much of the same can be said for the downtown neighborhood. It's going to be nice to put some things behind us. And all indications are that 2014 is set to match, if not exceed, the pace at which things have been improving here for the past decade.

Some things even have the added benefit of being a regret that we can let go of, while supplying hope for better days ahead. Take the Henley Bridge.  We've been able to see the light at the end of that tunnel for months now. Despite the disappointment of having the completion of the project delayed in 2013, it seems inevitable that downtown will soon fully reestablish its connection with the south side of the river. Limited traffic has been flowing across the bridge since Thanksgiving, and if you believe the new "no really" date, the renovated bridge should open up to full use by early June.

So far, the biggest impact has been the decrease in unhappy drivers downtown. Despite a perfectly good, albeit totally inconvenient, detour designed to prevent backups to the Gay Street Bridge during the Henley's reconstruction, many drivers chose the brute-force method instead. The result was three years of stop-and-go traffic downtown vying to reach South Knoxville via a bridge that was deemed to be insufficient for the task early last century.

Much of that has eased off since the partial opening of the Henley Bridge in late fall. But a lot of people who had no intent of seeing what's new downtown spent several minutes each day creeping through traffic over the past few years doing just that. In some ways, the closure was a great way to reintroduce people heading south of the river to downtown again. In others, it just bred more contempt for a part of town that doesn't fit the suburban model of wide roads, entrance ramps, and faster speeds.

Another change crept in at the end of 2013 that hopefully bodes well for the coming year and beyond. According to a press release in November, "the City of Knoxville no longer will contract with a professional transit management firm to provide the services of a General Manager for Knoxville Area Transit (KAT). The City will hire its own transit professional to serve as General Manager with direct responsibility to the Mayor and her designated senior leadership staff." This will eliminate another layer in what has been a rather complicated structure that has been in place for several years, and give the administration greater sway over the KAT system.

Hopefully, it will create a more holistic approach to the city's public transit system. In recent years there have been a number of glitches that have arisen between the city's accommodation of services and the service itself. On Gay Street, for example, the city would designate trolley stops and install signage, only to have KAT select a slightly different location, sometimes only a bus length away for their prepared stops. Suggestions on changes to service could be funneled through the city, but ultimately decisions were being made at the KAT level.

Given the expansions we're poised to see spreading out in all directions from downtown, as well as the never-ending parking challenges in the center city, it's going to nice to see this key component for alleviating congestion and connecting downtown's ever-broadening pieces. Building a strong and efficient trolley system is going to be key to those goals. And that's likely to be much simpler under the new structure.

There are dozens of other developments, including the impending opening of more residential units as well as commercial expansion on the fringes of the Central Business Improvement District and beyond that will make strengthening and hopefully expanding our trolley system a no-brainer. Let's hope that 2014 fulfills its potential, and that leaves us with more hopefulness than regrets for 2015.