To hear city officials and Knoxville Area Transit spokespeople tell it, Knoxville's soon-to-be-unveiled transit center is more than just a comfortable, climate-controlled new building where folks can wait for a bus; it's also a civic standard-bearer for environmental excellence; a potential solution to the longstanding problem of linking downtown and East Knoxville; even a new public showplace for art and academia.
The Knoxville Station on Church Avenue will open to the public for the first time on Friday, Aug. 6, with a juried art exhibit as part of downtown's monthly First Friday celebration, as well as a presentation from the station's architect, Nell Campbell, who will discuss some of the building's own notable design features. The station opens for full service on Aug. 16.
According to KAT Director of Marketing and Development Belinda Woodiel-Brill, certain rooms of the transit center will continue to play host to art exhibits and educational displays.
"Use your imagination here," she says, sweeping her hand to indicate the portion of the lower floor of the center that opens onto Church Avenue, her tongue slightly in cheek. She's being a touch droll right now, because the space that will soon comprise the center's training room and first-floor waiting area, and which will host both the First Friday event and a UT archaeology exhibit looking at downtown-area residents through several eras, is at the moment nothing more than a large room situated next to a larger hall. They are both a little dusty from finishing stages of construction, and empty save for a work ladder in the hall leading up to a missing ceiling tile and a clutch of exposed wiring.
"We're so excited about the changes; I'm excited about the rest rooms; I'm even excited about the vending machines," she says, pointing at the latter, which, like a pair of coin-operated oases, are already in place in the otherwise barren hall.
A little excitement is probably in order, because if nothing else, the $30 million(ish) facility, now two years in the making, is a huge improvement over what KAT had to offer its customers before—just ask the huddled masses of regular riders sweltering in the August heat at the current downtown pickup on Main Street. It is also being linked to a number of other changes, in both routing and customer service, that look to make riding the bus in Knoxville an altogether more modern, urban, efficient experience.
"Just having a comfortable, weather-protected place was in itself tremendous," says Bill Lyons, City of Knoxville director of policy and communications. "Overall, the facility is a huge plus for transit riders."
Besides the décor and sheltered comfort, Woodiel-Brill points out the new customer service desk, also a first-floor amenity, good for getting questions answered and fast ticket purchases. Also on the floor will be a low-cost breakfast and lunch spot, the Station Café, to be operated by the non-profit Youth Transitions, an outreach serving at-risk young people. "We hope that even people walking in from parking at the Coliseum will pop in for a cup of coffee before work," she says.
Around the corner at the end of the wide floor space that connects the Church Avenue entrance to the rear wall, two towering escalators flank a set of stairs, leading up to the platform where the buses will actually run. Flagged on either end by downtown and the Civic Coliseum, and buffered on its southwestern border by its own administrative offices, the platform offers passengers a safe central area to wait for buses, most of it covered by canopies.
Some of the upcoming, user-friendly procedural changes include a number of aids for the visually impaired. "For one thing, your bus will leave from the same place every time," says Woodiel-Brill.
Other changes include a redesigned route system, with the aim of ensuring more timely bus arrivals, and also simplified routes. "We've tried to make it so the route is the route through the whole entire week, as much as we could," she says. "We moved to get rid of the ‘A and B and C' routes. That was confusing for everyone."
As for innovation, Knoxville Station will have AVLs, or Automatic Vehicle Locators—systems that track buses via satellite, and keep riders apprised of arrival times by electronic signs at the station—or even online, should one choose to check with KAT before leaving the office. (Though Woodiel-Brill says the AVLs won't arrive for a few months yet.)
For all its new technology and apparent creature comforts, Woodiel-Brill says Knoxville Station stands apart as the first Silver LEED-certified government building in the city. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design; it's an environmental certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council to encourage green design, and Silver is the second of four possible certification levels.
Perhaps the most notable of the building's environmentally sound features is a geothermal heating and cooling system—a series of wells dug beneath the structure, through which water is pumped for climate control. According to Woodiel-Brill, "Our heating and cooling bill is only 10 percent of what it would be otherwise. It's unreal."
Other features include a so-called green roof over the administrative offices, planted with something called cedum, the purpose of which is to reduce storm run-off and provide insulation; a handful of solar panels; large windows for natural lighting; even "smart" hall lights that sense when to turn on and off.
But beyond all of the other considerations, environmental and otherwise, Lyons looks to the transit center as a way to remedy the seemingly eternal disconnect between downtown and East Knoxville. It's a problem partly created by the physical barrier of James White Parkway (which the center literally bridges), and partly by perceived distances—both spatial and cultural.
"The transit center helps with connecting to the East," Lyons says. "It fills in that gap in a positive way. It makes it more inviting to go East. It's been more a matter of what people perceive than anything else. But that connection problem has been a point raised by many consultants in the past."
Still in question is how the downtown trolley system will eventually be run out of the new transit center. For the time being, trolley schedules will stay the same. But Woodiel-Brill says change is afoot.
"We're going to re-look at the entire trolley system, because it serves so many different needs," she says. "It's a big challenge. You have conventiongoers, downtown visitors, UT to downtown, UT design center to UT, and also just connecting outlying parking. So how do we balance all that? We'll have to step back and look closely."
Another question that may have to be addressed, given the transit center's downtown location, is whether the station will become a de facto shelter for the homeless, especially during colder winter months. On one hand, Woodiel-Brill notes, "The bus is always open to everyone; it is what a community is, and we pick up who we pick up."
But she also points out the transit center itself has ample security features, both indoors and on the platform. "The awnings all have security cameras; the indoors have surveillance," she says. "We'll have a pretty strong presence throughout the building making sure people are here for the reason they need to be here. We feel this is a facility that will be comfortable to use for everyone."