Missing the Bus
Transit center should be about transportation, not a development project
by Frank Cagle
The proposed downtown transit center, or bus transfer station, has never been about transportation or a downtown transit center. The “inter-modal” facility, the bus station (or whatever you want to call it these days) has always been a scheme. That goes back to when it was first proposed well over a decade ago. It has always been a scam on the federal government.
The “inter-modal” facility was first proposed for the World’s Fair site, then for a block on Gay Street and now for State Street. The theory has always been that you get these federal funds to build the bus station, but you just happen to build it of reinforced concrete suitable for putting “something” on top of it, along with a parking deck. The something has varied from a new downtown office building to a Discovery Center, and its various components have sometimes included a daycare center for UT students.
But the prime mover in this project has always been using federal funds to leverage “something else.”
It is presently proposed for State Street, the site that was once targeted for a baseball stadium, for a Justice Center and for Universe Knoxville and its planetarium. It is next door to the parking deck that will be used for the new movie theater.
That’s not to say that the good folks at Knoxville Transportation Authority wouldn’t like to have a nice facility, or that they don’t do a bang-up job with the resources and the market they have. This has nothing to do with them, and it never has. It certainly might be a good idea to get some federal funds and build a bus transfer center someplace in Knoxville. But that idea is about transportation, and it needs to be decoupled from grandiose development schemes. From a transportation standpoint, who thinks downtown Knoxville, and State Street in particular, is a handy place to maneuver and park buses? Show of hands.
Let’s take a look at the real world that people in public life cannot talk about in public. Every time this project is seriously proposed, the people who have to do it sit down and start working on how it can be accomplished. Then reality sets in. It is certainly true that not all the people who ride buses are poor. Some people prefer to let others do the driving. But a lot of the people who use buses are indeed poor. That is not the demographic being sought by people you are asking to invest millions of dollars.
You go to a developer and say we want you to build a new Class-A office tower in downtown Knoxville. We will sell you development rights on our federally funded platform. Oh, by the way, the platform contains a bus station where people will be hanging around waiting to catch a bus somewhere.
Or, you talk to one of the newly-rich condo developers in downtown Knoxville and you suggest they build a condo tower on State Street, complete with the convenience of a bus station in the basement. Yeah, right.
Shift the focus to a public official making a speech to PTA mothers in West Knox County. We plan to build a Discovery Center and we want you to load the mini-van up with kids and bring them to downtown Knoxville. Your group will be trooping through a bus station to get to the new multi-million dollar Discovery Center. It will certainly be a learning experience for the kids.
About now some of you are ready to accuse me of being anti-poor people. My grandparents were sharecroppers. My mother was born in a tent. Some of my cousins lived in public housing. We were envious; they had radiators and a playground. I’m not suggesting that the world ought to work this way, merely observing that it does. Anybody want to talk about why all this public money has been spent to get the Volunteer Ministry homeless shelter off Gay Street and away from the new condo developments?
You can certainly argue that it shouldn’t matter to the people investing millions of dollars in a downtown venture that there are dozens of poor people hanging around out in front of your development. But if you are the mayor and City Council charged with being good stewards of the taxpayers’ money you need to ask yourself if you need to ignore reality in pursuit of some project that isn’t going to work.
Pull the plug, or take the money and build a transit center. It’s time to acknowledge the “something” development on top of this thing ain’t gonna happen.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .