A Sleeker KAT

KAT introduces new buses, new technology, and a new logo—plus the new transit center for 2010

In the convention center on Tuesday, Knoxville Area Transit announced a makeover, and details of the new transit center, due to open in August of 2010. According to KAT director Cindy McGinnis, the large facility, much of it built directly over James White Parkway alongside the Church Avenue viaduct, will combine services for both administration and customers.

With efficient lighting, solar panels, and insulation, the new building—which looks surprisingly unimposing in drawings—will meet the standards of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), which McGinnis says promises to reduce heating and cooling costs to 10 percent of that of a conventional building. An Automated Vehicle Locator using GPS-enabled technology will allow passengers to learn where their buses are, with estimated times of arrival.

KAT's new motto, "Ride for Change," might seem to echo 2008 presidential campaigns—but it's a double entendre suggesting that citizens can positively change their environment and America's energy dependence by riding the bus, and that a KAT ride is cheap.

And there's a new squadron of buses. Nine, built by the Gillig Corporation of San Francisco, are arriving in the next few weeks. They operate on diesel—some of the smaller buses in the current KAT fleet run on propane—but have an improved exhaust filtration device. The first such bus was on hand, and looks sharply different from buses of the past. In recent years, KAT buses have moved around the city like giant Hasbro toys, in bright orange and aqua. The new ones look like they belong in a grown-up city, with sleek designs in elegant black and gray. KAT's new green-dot logo—they've killed the leaping cat—is understated and urbane, and has already won some design awards.

At the press conference, a group of about 30 had a good look at the new bus, oohing over the "new bus smell," the inevitable joke of the morning. Veteran driver Greg Davis, recent winner of a KAT Roadeo competition, ran the bus for several minutes without stinking up the room. He seemed to enjoy demonstrating the vehicle's improved handicap-access equipment, including an almost alarmingly quick fold-down ramp, which looks like the sort of ramp James Bond would want to use if he ever had to catch a bus in a wheelchair.

And go figure: It turns out the latest in stop-request-indication technology is the pull-cord. The bright yellow touch tapes that seemed so modern a few years ago could be slipping into the past. Word is that riders just never figured them out.

In spite of KAT's lavish new trappings, much of it from funding earmarked for one improvement or another, KAT officials admitted their budget is still very tight. After disappointments in obtaining funding from county government, which has never been a major funder of public transportation, KAT is likely to curtail its Halls commuter service, and is reconsidering its Farragut route, which will likely mean a reduction or combination with other West Knoxville service. Other routes may be altered, trimmed, or consolidated, but probably not before the August 2010 opening of the transit center.