KAT's Cuts, Cut

Knoxville’s bus system’s back to the drawing board after the Knoxville Transportation Authority aborts plans to quit suburban routes

Knoxville's bus system's back to the drawing board after the Knoxville Transportation Authority aborts plans to quit suburban routes

Knoxville's bus system's back to the drawing board after the Knoxville Transportation Authority aborts plans to quit suburban routes

Knoxville Area Transit, flanked by financial crises associated with rising gasoline prices, laid out a strategy last week to the Knoxville Transportation Authority, as well as to citizens in attendance, in the large conference room at the City County Building. The KTA unanimously approved KAT’s proposals for raising more revenue for the bus system; and the KTA unanimously rejected all of KAT’s proposals for route cutbacks.

The immediate problem is shared by many; the price of gasoline is rising. That fact might seem good for public transit; and in terms of increasing ridership, it is. KAT hasn’t been more popular in decades. But fares account for only 10 percent of KAT’s revenue, and the relatively modest additional revenue is not enough to offset the price of running the buses. A second problem is also related to gas prices rising; federal and state funding for KAT, which together account for about a third of its budget, are linked to gasoline-tax revenue, which declines as people drive less. The two hard facts seem to be converging on public transit in a pincer movement.

KAT laid out a plan of new revenue sources, most of which were not controversial, at least not in that room. Among them, a modest hike in Vol football game-day shuttles (from $4 to $5; and, in Farragut’s case, from $10 to $15), and in charter rate (from $70 to $100). Together, those additions will raise about $65,000, a modest amount. A re-institution of bus advertising, inside and outside the buses, is expected to bring in an additional $300,000 annually. Cindy McGinnis, general manager of KAT, says the bus system dropped ads about six years ago after experiences with undependable contractors and some technical problems. Thanks to new technology, they’re reviewing the idea. “Now there are beautiful vinyl graphics, attached directly to the bus, like a decal,” she says. The KTA approved all the revenue-generating ideas, so we’ll see ads on buses in the near future.

The proposed cutbacks were a different story. KAT left some threatened services, like KAT’s already-limited Sunday routes, intact, while insisting on cuts to other services. The administrative proposal called for the elimination of two suburban express routes, the Halls and Farragut lines, and for a curtailment of its LIFT service, a special bus that picks up the disbled at their own homes. For some years, KAT has gone beyond its Americans with Disabilities Act mandate, which demands that bus systems pick up disabled passengers if they live within three-quarters of a mile of a route. KAT’s proposed cutback would retreat to the ADA minimum.

It was, at least in that room, not a popular measure. Most of the 60-odd attendees last Thursday afternoon seemed there to oppose one of the three cutbacks. One by one, about 25 people approached the microphone, some in wheelchairs, to denounce the plan or plead for another option. Some were angry and even crying. One man jeered at the seeming senselessness of cutting back on public transit just when citizens need it the most.

To McGinnis, cutting Farragut and Halls is a natural target. Most of KAT’s operating budget comes from taxpayer-supported government; their largest single funder is the City of Knoxville, which funds about half of KAT’s budget. However, residents of Farragut and Halls don’t currently contribute to any local government entity that supports public transit.

About three speakers alluded to the fact that city taxpayers are effectively subsidizing Halls and Farragut riders. Knoxville property owners pay both city and county taxes; Halls and Farragut residents’ taxes are much lower, and aren’t earmarked for public transit. Compounding the inequity is that those routes cost the same—$1.25, for a standard fare, though suburban destinations are more costly, especially in fuel expenses. (One Farragut route booster mentioned that round-trip cab fare from downtown Knoxville to Farragut might run as high as $70.)

One Farragut rider declared that Farragut’s city government had been “quite generous” in its offer of $20,000 to help subsidize the future maintenance of the Farragut route. Whether generous or not (that’s about a dollar a year, per Farragut citizen), KAT says it would pay for only one-fifth of the Farragut route’s expense. A few citizens, as well as the very vocal KTA member Art Carmichael, challenged the audience to take their case to Knox County government as well as to the town of Farragut.

One rider made a point that in transporting non-city residents, KAT is indeed supporting the city by making it easier for people to work in Knoxville, and by mitigating, to some degree, traffic and pollution.

More important, McGinnis says, was making cutbacks that wouldn’t affect people who have no other transportation options. “These passengers have options available to them,” namely, automobiles. In short, people who live in suburbs have access to working cars, or they wouldn’t be living in the suburbs. That’s not true for many in-city Knoxvillians.

As of this week, McGinnis expects they may find some way to accommodate the Halls and Farragut routes, albeit probably with higher rates. Rate-hike hearings will come later in the year.

She’s not as sure about keeping the full range of the LIFT program. One handicapped rider approached the lectern and praised it as “the most effective paratransit system in the state.”

“The LIFT service is incredibly expensive,” says McGinnis, who came to KAT about two years ago. She says a lift trip costs KAT, on average, $28, but costs the passenger only $2.50. She says the city found itself supporting the LIFT even beyond the ADA’s three-quarter-mile boundary after some awkward finger annexations, especially along Northshore Drive and Pellissippi Parkway, and also into Strawberry Plains, sometimes as much as six miles off a main bus route. On these jaunts, she says, KAT ceases to be “mass transit,” literally: “Most always, only one passenger is on the vehicle traveling to these areas,” she says, adding that there’s also an “equity issue”: able-bodied riders don’t have comparable access to off-route areas. She adds that not cutting services to the few people who live outside the designated service areas will likely force other cutbacks, which will also be felt by the handicapped.

Knoxville Disabilities Coordinator Stephanie Cook, who uses a wheelchair herself, sees both sides. The cutbacks are “reasonable from a budgetary standpoint,” she says. “It’s not reasonable from the standpoint of the rider who is dependent on the LIFT.

“There are alternatives,” she adds. “Plenty of people use CAC and ETHRA,” she says, referring to the Community Action Committee, one of the few public-transit programs Knox County does support, and the non-profit East Tennessee Human Resources Agency, supported by the state and by private donations. Both provide some door-to-door services for the handicapped, especially the essential ones. “You can take them to go to work, or a doctor’s visit,” she says, “but I don’t think you can take it to go to the movies. With the KAT LIFT, you can.”

For the time being, KTA has nixed all of KAT’s proposed cutbacks with conviction that public transit should never be diminished, but with no solution to the problem. As a few mentioned during the meeting, the city bankrolls KAT’s debt, which is currently at about $7 million, and growing. McGinnis suggests KAT will have a clearer idea about proposed rate hikes when they meet to discuss them in September, but it’s not clear that rate hikes alone will solve the remaining deficit.

© 2008 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 4

richaher writes:

I can't tell you how disappointed I am in the one sided view of this article. To say the city should only be the only benefactor is ridiculous. Granted the county should contribute more, and we all would be better served by a metro government instead of both. But this article misses the fact that county completely pays for schools and libraries. Not to mention, CAC (transportation) that goes into the city AND out of the county. To only represent the city's point of view on this is playing to a border war between the city and county that does is downright shameful. The city is PART of the county and they should act like it.

What about the benefits of those coming in from the county or out of county? If those that hold to this "city limits" view want to be an island, go live in the south Pacific!!!

I am surprise that MetroPulse would allow an article to not have a broader community and world view on this subject.

I suppose when gas gets to 6 bucks, we should shut down all routes except the Broadway and Magnolia?

macnab writes:

This whole issue of KAT routes seems to be a little silly. Kinda like watching the chimpanzees and orangutans in 'Planet of the Apes' debate science and objectivity. I think a better debate could be posed- 'Why is the city running a bus line?'.

Why not let transportation companies invest and run a bus line? Don't they usually do the best job? If we believe that transportation is a constitutional right, shouldn't we let professionals do it. With all due apologies to local governing entities, I don't think they are the best choice for the job. Sure, the private company may increase the bus fare to what it actually costs to run the bus, but at least we would still have a busline.

With $7M in debt, how long can Knoxville sustain this service? I would rather pay more for a bus ride than not have a bus ride available.

Who knows, maybe the move away from monopolization would spur some new, innovative ideas, like smaller buses, better routes or times. The point is that when I ride the bus from North Knoxville into Downtown, I leave the driving to the professional, Knoxville should do the same.

richaher writes:

I can understand your point. Like many possible solutions, each has its own set of problems.

I'd think that the management and staffing was outsourced, that might be ok. Government needs to own the system so that citizens wouldn't be overtly at risk of losing service if a private company couldn't perform.

While no one wants to allow a monopoly by government or private company, we can't afford for service to be butchered by overly aggressive private companies either.

macnab writes:

With all due respect, I have witnessed just the opposite in my 34 short years. The worst cases of market butchering (worldly and locally) that I have witnessed had one common theme: monopoly, either by governments or private companies.

That is to say, I have never witnessed price gouging in any market arena with true competition, no matter how overly aggressive the companies. Likewise, infringement to competition always causes high prices and poor service: cable tv, health care,....DOT.

What if the City deregulated the bus industry and then just provided subsidized vouchers to its citizens on the bus line with the best price/customer service? I would be willing to bet my old pick-up truck that the City would save 20% or more and service no debt.

Anyone like to take me up on my make-believe plan/bet?

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