editorial (2006-01)

Give Us Our Garage Back

Public parking as a security threat? Give us a break, too

Dependence on Air Travel

Give Us Our Garage Back

Over the past five years, this nation has gone to great, ridiculous lengths in the name of security. A color-coded alert system designates how suspicious of low-flying planes we should be on any given day; airport security has peeved many a lighter-carrying smoker. We’ve become so obsessed with the concept, in fact, that it’s starting to become difficult to remember what we were supposed to be scared of in the first place. And yet, overly cautious security measures remain intact.

A similar phenomenon has continued with regard to the City County Building’s parking garage, which was closed to the general public in 2003, more than a year after the September 11 attacks, for “security” reasons. Unlike the United States’ caution, substantiated by an actual security-violating event, the City Council Building seems to have jumped on the better-safe-than-sorry bandwagon for no good reason: Folks who would park temporarily in the garage while they run inside and pay a ticket might be annoyed, but they’re rarely armed and dangerous.

Unfortunately, the closed garage didn’t bother office-holders, employees and other designated parking-spot holders, whom the permanently lowered barrier didn’t affect (except, perhaps, for state Reps. Bill Dunn and Frank Niceley, who gave up their parking passes at the request of former City Council member Carlene Malone’s Lift the Barrier campaign).

Meanwhile, except for a very few metered parking spots, there’s nowhere for City County building visitors to park within the block—of particular hindrance to handicapped persons.

But even “security” bends the rules on occasion. Last week in “Ear to Ground,” we reported that during select political functions, the parking garage has been opened to friends and family; that city and county employees have been caught lending out passes without approval; and that an audit of parking passes revealed that dozens have been distributed to people who should not have had them.

Malone’s coalition has led the way in changing the garage’s status, under the correct contention that taxpayers who funded the garage’s construction should have access to it today. Lift the Barrier also suggests that the Public Building Authority could pay for increased security with revenue from a public garage.

The City Council, at least, is listening, as evidenced by its vote to reopen the garage. The County Commission is still wavering, deferring the issue to a study committee. With any luck, the committee will reach the sensible conclusion soon—the one that doesn’t reward power with privilege under the guise of supposed “security.” But two things are clear: Parking is not the real issue here, and security never was.

Dependence on Air Travel

The latter may be the worse news, as the Knoxville area continues to try to attract new industries and keep its existing ones happily ensconced in the region. Jobs are in the balance, and not just those at the airport. Losing air service is an economic calamity in itself.

The reduction of available routes, especially those featuring non-stop flights sought by business travelers, will put a strain on this region’s efforts toward industrial and major commercial recruitment and retention. Corporate executives want the highest number of choices in air service, and that number goes down dramatically as Independence Air ceases operations at the end of its Thursday, Jan. 5 business day.

It doesn’t help that four other airlines serving Knoxville—Delta, United, American and Northwest—are themselves in difficult financial straits and have been dropping some routes. Independence Air was recruited vigorously by the airport, the Chamber Partnership and East Tennesseans for Airfare Competition before it committed to Knoxville in early 2004, filling a three-year gap between discount carriers that saw airfares here rise more than 100 percent on some routes after Air Tran pulled out.

A failed business model, rising fuel costs and the airline’s inability to attract a buyer or major investor led to its failure after 18 months of flying, mostly in the eastern half of the nation. Its parent company filed for bankruptcy protection in November, and its CEO said financial pressures could be sustained no longer than this week.

TAC, the recruitment organization supported by area businesses and industries, is fronted by Danny Varlan, a capable and persuasive campaigner who says that she and her group have been actively pursuing another low-fare airline that has shown some interest in the Knoxville market. She didn’t name it.

Would that it were Southwest Airlines, the most successful of the low-fare carriers nationwide. It serves Nashville, but as yet has been disinclined to move into Knoxville.