Time is Money: KAT's Proposed Route Changes are Result of Expiring UT Contract and Increased Federal Funds

Earlier this month, Knoxville Area Transit released a set of proposed changes to its bus routes. If the proposals are approved by the Knoxville Transportation Authority later this month, many riders may find their typical routes served more frequently by early summer.

But nothing's for free, and KAT will take a hit when the University of Tennessee's 10-year contract with KAT ends May 31, which will reduce KAT's budget by almost $2 million. Mark Hairr, director of parking and transit services at UT, says the state does not allow contracts between UT and other companies to last more than 10 years. So UT's contract to operate university buses was publicly put up for bids, and was won by private transportation company First Transit, which will replace the KAT-operated buses with buses unique to the university's new system on June 1.

However, at the same time, the federal government increased the amount of money sent to Knoxville for transit services.

"Dollar-wise, the plan proposes using $1.1 million in additional federal grant funding," says KAT CFO Melissa Roberson. "The KAT budget as a whole will shrink somewhat."

And with that tighter budget, some perks UT students, faculty, and staff could take advantage of will disappear. The UT semester pass that allows students, faculty and staff to ride any KAT bus for a deeply discounted price is up for elimination.

The proposed replacement pass would be available only to college students, though colleges and universities besides UT would be able to participate in the program. The new pass would cost $130 (the current pass available to UT students, faculty, and staff costs $50), and the number of days the pass would be valid would be reduced to 130 days instead of 140. Any college that participates in the program can choose to subsidize the passes for its students.

That means UT faculty and staff would have to pay full $1.50 fare on KAT buses, says Belinda Woodiel-Brill, director of marketing and development for KAT. Minimum-wage workers not associated with the university have always paid that fare.

"We felt like this was just a really good middle-ground fare structure that really made everything very equitable. I think that was the primary reason that we have proposed these fare changes," she says.

Woodiel-Brill says this new fare structure continues to give college students a break during the school year, allowing them to pay $1 per day.

But UT students, faculty, and staff have a new bus system that will act as a shuttle around campus to look forward to, starting this summer. The new service will have an app associated with it that will allow riders to track where the buses are, and when they'll arrive at a stop, unlike the buses KAT operates, which do not have tracking technology.

"There should be more confidence in the buses because students will now be able to look on their phones and know where the buses are," Hairr says. "So it'll eliminate a tremendous amount of uncertainty about whether the next bus is coming. That's a great attraction that students have really been calling for for a long time."

The new bus system will continue to be called the T, Hairr says, and routes will be pretty similar to the ones currently in use. The main differences between what KAT currently offers students on campus and the new First Transit system will be the color of the buses and the app that can track them.

The new T buses will continue to be paid for by students' transportation fees, though Hairr says he's not sure if students will see an increase in that fee yet. Students should know by April if there will be an increase, he says.

Hairr says it's also too soon to say whether UT will subsidize the proposed semester pass for students since it hasn't been formally approved, though the administration is aware of the matter.

The KAT buses and drivers currently in charge of ferrying students around campus will be shuffled over to contribute to the increased service on other routes. The proposal increases the frequency of buses on 12 main routes. Details of the changes can be found on KAT's website, katbus.com.

Under the proposal, there would also be a new route in Vestal.

"That's sort of been on our radar for a while," Woodiel-Brill says. The area previously had a route, but it was canceled in 2010. "But we've since heard lots of comments and requests to reinstitute that service. And so we had that as high on our priority list, so we put that in as well," she says.

KAT has held two open houses for the public this month, and the third (and final) meeting for people to drop into is on Feb. 21 from 7 a.m. to noon at the downtown Knoxville Station. Anyone can stop by, hear more about specific route changes, and leave comments.

The changes will have to be approved by KAT's board, the KTA. They'll have a public meeting on Feb. 28 at 3 p.m. in the City-County Building's main assembly room. The public is welcome to attend and share thoughts with KTA. The board will then vote on the proposals. Any approved changes will go into effect on June 3