editorial (2005-35)

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Transit’s Very Public Future

Our downtown center is a preview of travel to come

Transit’s Very Public Future

The Central Station Transit Center in downtown Knoxville received a huge boost earlier this month when the federal Transportation Equity Act of 2005 authorized $11 million and change to fill out the transit center’s construction budget, now set at $22 million.

The center will make KAT the transportation choice of thousands more people than now ride the system’s buses and trolleys. Its State Street location, linking a Central Street garage with a Gay Street entry point, will serve as a hub for public transit as that component of personal travel grows inevitably into the 21st century.

It will also connect the heart of the downtown with the Old City in an easy jaunt for pedestrians or trolley riders, and it will provide Knoxville with its point of public transit reference in the planning for future needs and modes of getting people from place to place that’s being done by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Tennessee Department of Transportation, and the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization.

The center itself will be a showplace if all the components being advanced by KAT are included in the final design. Knoxville architecture firms McCarty Holsapple McCarty and Bullock Smith, along with transit consultants Von Grossman & Co. of Boston, are putting that design together, with Knox County retaining the air rights over the center’s core between State and Central for future development that has not yet been specified.

Melissa Trevathan, KAT’s chief administrative officer, describes the essential components as the garage itself, a passenger waiting room and customer service area at the State Street level, and a smaller passenger facility on Gay Street, connected by escalators and elevators. It encompasses more than 322,000 square feet in all.

A key to its appeal, besides renewed interest in residential and retail development on Gay Street, is what Trevathan calls “an enhanced pedestrian experience” that is also friendly to disabled persons, convenient to bicyclists, and appealing to commuters and tourists alike.

It is a slightly larger and more complex facility than was originally envisioned, but as Trevathan explains, accommodating future needs was taken into account. If KAT’s accomplishments over the last dozen years are considered, with its upgraded fleet and its introduction of alternative fuels and hybrid diesel-electric vehicles, its commitment to the future of efficient public transit is obvious.

How that plays into the future of this region and state is only now getting its first serious, long-range look in more than 10 years, and TDOT is the driving force behind it.

TDOT’s three- 10- and 25-year transportation outlook has recently been drafted, and its summary is available online at www.tdot.state.tn.us . It looks at various modes of transport, including private cars and trucks, public buses and rail cars, and everything else, from aviation, to barges to bicycles to shoe leather, using highways, streets, waterways, rail lines and greenways.

It’s pretty comprehensive, but it doesn’t make specific recommendations so much as it sets up alternatives and makes staggering cost estimates on the establishment and maintenance of those alternatives through the year 2030.

It is the sort of long-range planning that needs to be kept up, and TDOT promises to do that, with public input all along the way. Why that is necessary, and why such developments—new to most of Tennessee—as car-pooling and bus lanes along commuter routes and inter-city rail lines for passengers as well as freight, are part of the 21st century picture are as plain as the spinning dials on the gas pumps. Energy costs are rising too fast to justify continued individual vehicle travel.

Pedestrian, bicycle, and public transit alternatives are the only answers to fuel costs that are likely to surpass $6, or even $10, per gallon in that 25-year time frame. We cannot afford to continue believing that the private auto is our only option. The demand for motor fuel in such developing countries as China and India, with their billion-plus populations and their rising incomes and expectations, will mean that the U.S. share of petroleum production must go down just as surely as easily accessed reserves shrink and prices rise.

The TDOT plan, called Plan Go, provides us with some options, including what it describes as the “most promising” inter-city rail corridors. On that list are proposed lines from Chattanooga through or near Nashville to Louisville, Ky., from Memphis to Bristol through or near Nashville and Knoxville and from Chattanooga to Bristol through Knoxville. That would put Knoxville roughly at an advantageous “Y” in East Tennessee, and the Chattanooga legs would connect nicely with a proposed Atlanta-Chattanooga high-speed rail link. Those concepts aren’t pie in the sky. They are being virtually mandated by fuel costs.

In the interim, some kind of inter-city bus grid should be established that would eventually feed those rail links. We need county seat-to-county seat bus lines now. The longer we wait to put them in place, the more costly they will become.

We’ve already squandered our rail rights-of-way to a great extent, and we must look ahead and weigh our options to determine the best course of public transit, inside and outside our population centers, if we are to travel efficiently down the road. Cheers to TDOT for laying those options out for us.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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