While the rest of the Knoxville area talks wishfully about creating mass-transit alternatives to more cars, Sevier County is actively pursuing one.
Plans are on the drawing boards for a rapid-transit system that would traverse a dedicated right of way along the heavily congested 23-mile corridor between I-40's Sevierville interchange and Gatlinburg. Both rail and roadway options were addressed in an analysis conducted for the Sevier County Transportation Board by the engineering and planning firm Wilbur Smith Associates. Because the projected $400 million cost of a rail line far exceeded the $80 million projected for a bus rapid transit (BRT) system, the BRT approach is now getting most of the attention.
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters, who is also chairman of the transportation board, stresses that plans for the BRT are still in a formative stage and haven't yet been acted on by Sevier County Commission or the legislative bodies of the three municipalities involved: Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. He's hopeful, at this point, of getting $1 million in federal funding for a pre-engineering study that could, in turn, pave the way for an application to the Federal Transit Administration for 80/20, federal/state funding of the project. The Tennessee Department of Transportation's director of public transit, Diane Davidson, has already hailed it as "an exciting project" that has "a lot of potential."
Most of the $80 million would go for construction of the dedicated lanes that Wilbur Smith's Bob Bowers reckons would allow buses to cover the 23-mile stretch in little more than half an hour—less than half the time now required to drive it during periods of peak traffic. These would be no ordinary buses but rather sleek, hybrid vehicles that might resemble commuter rail cars. And there would be covered, if not enclosed, stations along the way that would interconnect with Pigeon Forge's and Gatlinburg's established trolley systems as well as Sevierville's brand new one.
The Wilbur Smith analysis projects that a BRT system would increase mass transit use by 50 percent or more over the 1.5 million riders now using the existing trolleys on a yearly basis. In addition to saving drivers time and aggravation (assuming frequent and reliable service) the system would also serve to curtail air pollution that is the scourge of this gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Park itself.
While day-trippers might take the BRT from end to end to visit, say, Ripley's Aquarium in Gatlinburg, Waters doesn't foresee that many overnight visitors would do so. Rather, he envisions that they would mostly drive to their lodgings and then use the transit system for excursions to shopping or entertainment venues or into the Park itself. A Gatlinburg trolley route already goes to the Laurel Falls trailhead and the Elkmont Camp Grounds, and the National Park Service is also involved in the BRT planning.
Still, the engineering and the financing of the BRT will be challenging to say the least. Dedicating lanes from I-40 along Route 66 to its conjunction with the Parkway (U.S. 441) will be the easier part since it's already on the verge of being widened to six lanes, and TDOT has enough right of the way to make it even wider. The Parkway already has six lanes (plus turn lanes) through Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, but it's already congestion-prone and making it wider or using its median will be difficult. The hardest part, though, will be traversing the four mile "spur" between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg that was built by the National Park Service on an environmentally sensitive, four-lane roadway that affords little room for widening. The Wilbur Smith report suggests that the BRT might be built in stages with the spur section held for last and served by the Gatlinburg trolley, which uses regular lanes, in the meantime.
To fund the project, Waters has his sights set on tapping an $8.6 billion pot of mass transit money known as "New Starts" that's included in a massive $284 million federal highway and transit spending bill that's making its way through Congress. But a totally dedicated "guideway" is a prerequisite to getting New Starts funding and that begs a solution to the spur problem as well as other right-of-way constraints.
A possible solution, Waters suggests, is what's known as a Personal Transit System (PRT) which transports very small vehicles on a very narrow guideway. The PRT concept has been voguish in some circles for many years, but, despite a lot of planning, none has ever come to fruition. It may be on the table, though, if and when Sevier officials reach the stage of seeking FTA approval for the project.
While Sevier County is proceeding boldly, the rest of the Knoxville area is languishing when it comes to seeking mass transit solutions to all the problems posed by proliferation of automobile traffic. True, Knoxville Area Transit offers express bus routes to downtown from Farragut, Cedar Bluff and Halls, but there are no plans for augmenting or dedicating lanes to them. The Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization's recently published long-range transportation plan envisions "a series of express buses connecting the region. Some of the key areas the express buses will originate and end at are Oak Ridge, Maryville/Alcoa, Lenoir City, Knoxville, Sevierville, and Pigeon Forge. Strategically placed will be a series of transfer centers that express buses will meet and where passengers can transfer to different routes or to other local services...."
However, the organization's director, Jeff Welch, acknowledges that "except for Sevier County, there are really no other legs that have gotten going." More power to the Sevier officials who have taken the lead in trying to make regional mass transit a reality.