Departing transit chief leaves a stellar legacy
James Howard Kunstler on globalism, alternative energy, and the automobile slum
Wednesday, Sept. 20
The Hairr of the KAT
Mark Hairr’s last days as general manager of Knox Area Transit were last week, and he left some really big shoes to fill with his departure. The transit system has been expanded, modernized and made more people-friendly during his five-plus years at the wheel.
Hairr, who left to become manager of the Advanced Technologies for Transportation Research Program in Chattanooga, may be best remembered in the future for his development and installation of KAT’s Clean Fuels Program. When he left for Chattanooga, 95 percent of the fuels consumed by KAT, including those for all of its regular fixed-route buses, were alternative fuels, mainly biodiesel. The program won an Air Care Award from the East Tennessee Regional Clean Air Coalition this year.
The list of accomplishments and awards Hairr can claim at KAT is much longer, however. KAT was named the best transit system in North America among those carrying between a million and four million passengers a year in 2004 by the American Public Transit Association. The same year, he was named GM of the year by the Tennessee Public Transit Association.
Hairr came to the KAT as its director of development in 1996 from the city of Knoxville, where he’d been a policy analyst and special projects manager with an emphasis on transportation issues. When Professional Transportation Management, the city’s contractor to run the transit system, named him general manager in 2001, he already had a firm grasp of KAT’s role, its problems, and the potential for solving some of them.
Under his leadership, routes were revised and lengthened, schedules were also lengthened in many areas, and ridership increased by 64 percent.
“He’s a very progressive person,” says Dave Hill, the city’s chief operating officer, who adds that Hairr “developed a reputation for KAT as being a very well-run organization.”
Madeline Rogero, a KAT board member, says of Hairr that “he and his staff have always been very responsive to board questions.”
Hairr’s reason for leaving, he says, is the challenge posed by his new job, where his task will be to develop and deploy transportation technologies that utilize clean and secure sources of energy. His work with biodiesel and his new location in Chattanooga, with its electric buses, will contribute to his experience in clean fuels and help him in his new role.
Hairr says the delays in establishing the Knoxville transit center downtown, which he has referred to as the biggest missing part of the KAT system, didn’t contribute to his decision to leave. “Mayor Haslam is working to assure that he gets the most for his dollar and the best transit center in the best location, and that’s what he should be doing,” Hairr says of the delays in siting the center and getting construction underway.
Jeff Welch, director of the Knoxville Transportation Policy Organization, an arm of the Metropolitan Planning Commission, says he believes that Hairr’s “biggest accomplishment was working out the transit service with UT and connecting that service with downtown Knoxville.” He also worked with Knoxville College and Pellissippi State to increase student ridership.
“He’s been very proactive in building relationships with potential transit users,” Welch says. In that regard, Hairr worked with employers to adjust routes and schedules to accommodate, as much as possible, the needs of workers who could use KAT as it became available, Welch says. For the vigorous leadership he’s provided to the system, “He’ll be missed,” Rogero says.
The ridership total, up an average of more than 10 percent per year while Hairr was general manager, reached 3.3 million in fiscal 2006, which ended in July. Melissa Trevathan, KAT’s chief of administration and finance and a long-time KAT employee, has been named interim general manager by Professional Transit Management. Officials of the Cincinnati-based contractor say they are conducting an industry-wide search for Hairr’s replacement and may be able to announce his successor within the next week or so.
Popular author James Howard Kunstler was in town Monday for a lecture at UT’s McClung Museum. The author of Geography of Nowhere has in the last decade or so become the nation’s leading opponent of suburban sprawl, which he calls the “national automobile slum” and “an infrastructure for daily life with no future.”
Strutting back and forth in front of a slide show before a nearly packed house composed mostly of students but including a few well-known new-urbanist developers and a smattering of Internet opinion leaders, Kunstler made some harsh claims, many outlined in his latest book, The Long Emergency .
Citing American geophysicist M. King Hubbert’s well-known 1956 claim that due to finite oil reserves global oil production would peak around the turn of the century, Kunstler claimed world oil production reached its all-time peak in 2005, and will only decline in the 21st century.
He called America’s reaction to the consequent rising fuel prices “increasingly neurotic.” He said technological solutions to the coming energy crisis will be inevitably disappointing. “There will be no hydrogen economy,” he said flatly, claiming that hydrogen could never be produced efficiently. He said he’d gotten criticism for not getting on the “mystery train” of biodiesel, which he says will be unsustainable on a major long-term level because American cropland is getting more scarce, and too many cornfields are “already assigned to cheese doodles.”
Not one to mince words, Kunstler condemned the “fatuous” level of intellectual discourse in America concerning energy; chided the service economy, which he compared to “everyone taking in laundry for everyone else”; and rebuked “the worship of unearned riches,” which he says has a stronger hold on America than any religion.
“Suburbia is going to fail,” he declared, due to its dependence on cheap gasoline; he called suburban sprawl “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.”
He sees hope only in making cities more resource-independent, and in greater reliance on rail and water transportation. The American railroad system is one “Bolivians would be ashamed of.”
Though Kunstler would generally seem a friend to new urbanist projects, he startled a few in the audience when he questioned the fact that “waterfronts are being converted into condominiums and parks,” which sounds a lot like the city’s long-term Southside waterfront project. “We’re going to need them again,” Kunstler said. “For docks, wharves, and whorehouses for sailors.”
Americans, he said, will have to live “more intensely and profoundly locally than we have in a long time, with a return to local agriculture and manufacturing.”
While acknowledging writers like Thomas Friedman who posit that the future of mankind is necessarily a global economy, Kunstler called globalism a “transient” phenomenon. “It’s a fallacy that globalism is permanent,” he said. “Globalism is a set of transient relations dependent on world peace and cheap energy.”
“We will soon see the end of the skyscraper and the megastructure,” he said. He thinks major cities will fail because of their lack of water supply and agriculture.
“Phoenix is not going to make it. Las Vegas is not going to make it.” He believes smaller cities and towns will stand a better chance, especially those with their own water supply.
He showed a slide of a featureless asphalt intersection that some in the audience thought they recognized as Kingston Pike near Cedar Bluff. It turned out to be taken in a suburban area near his home in Saratoga, N.Y.
He called it an illustration of “places not worth caring about”; they were part of the national crisis, he said, and could even undermine patriotism. “There are too many of these. You Volunteers of Tennessee, are you going to defend the curb cuts of America? Are you going to go and die for the curb cut between the Chuck E. Cheese and the Wal-Mart?”
Much of his manner seemed calculated to provoke, but he stirred only polite reaction in the audience.
Showing another slide of suburban blight, he said, “This looks like the road from the airport.” And it did. But his specific comments about Knoxville were more positive.
“You’re well along. You’re doing a better job than most cities of your caliber in America.” To be fair, he’d been given a tour of improvements downtown by architecture Prof. Mark Schimmenti, an urban enthusiast, but did not see Kingston Pike or Clinton Highway.
Walking back to the hotel after dinner at La Costa on Market Square, Kunstler remarked that “this is really very pleasant.”
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