editorial (2006-34)

The Transit Center is up in the Air (Rights)

The alternatives seem unattractive and out of reach, so at least give us our municipal parking back

The Transit Center is up in the Air (Rights)

The prospects for locating and getting Knoxville’s vaunted transit center underway hardly seem any brighter today than they did during the infighting that held back the project under the previous city administration.

After more than five years of serious discussion and two years of agreement that the bare site on State Street north of Wall Avenue was the preferred location, complete with preliminary plans and a full environmental assessment, the project was tossed a curve when the city determined that construction costs had escalated to the point that it couldn’t be built there as designed.

The $27 million facility, with $22 million, including $11 million in federal funds, in the bank, will likely go elsewhere. Mayor Bill Haslam says there are three other sites under consideration. None of them offers either the convenience of State Street or the prospect of filling in a property so desperately underutilized as that nearly empty surface parking lot.

Three alternatives under city consideration include city-owned land east of the Civic Coliseum, three long blocks from the heart of downtown; property along Depot Avenue near Gay Street and adjacent to the site of the old Southern Railway station, which is just as far or farther from the center of the downtown business/office/residential district; and a relatively small parcel of green space next to the City County Building. The latter could allow for a public parking garage to offset the utter inconvenience of the security-mandated closing of the City County parking garage to public access, and it is more convenient to the rest of downtown than the other alternatives.

How that area would support bays for 22 buses, lend access to trolley and taxi service, provide for bicycle facilities and (bus) passenger and driver amenities, as the original transit center was to have done, is hard to imagine.

There is more space for such considerations at the Civic Center site, which is already opposite the marshalling point on Church Avenue for downtown trolleys. It might meet other goals of the transit center, such as making transit more easy and attractive to use, to improve traffic congestion, parking availability and air quality (if electric-powered buses were employed), and extend the edge of downtown eastward. But it would hardly meet other stated goals, such as promoting a walkable downtown or improving downtown access for residents, shoppers and workers or expanding the tax base.

Neither would the Depot Avenue site. The only thing to commend it might be that some of the former Southern Railway Depot could be incorporated into the center. But it’s still a four-block hike to Market Square or the 400 block of Gay Street, the centers of new downtown development, and it’s even more remote from the Gay Street theaters or the City County Building, which sits at downtown’s opposite end.

On the whole, the alternative sites might promote a more walkable downtown only if transit ridership were guaranteed. In all likelihood, the alternatives would discourage ridership, not a healthy prospect for a multi-million-dollar investment.

The problem with the State Street site, which has already been considered for several discarded projects—a Justice Center, a baseball park for the Tennessee Smokies, and a planetarium—is that Knox County, which swapped the land to the city for the former News Sentinel site at State and Church, owns the air rights. The county expressed the wish to develop those rights above the transit center, necessitating expensive initial engineering and construction outlays, according to the city. Those facets are deemed unaffordable now, so the fenced-in gravel expanse appears to be destined to stay that way, despite its appealing and accessible location.

It’s the only available site that would lend itself to a truly central bus transfer facility. The questions, then, are: Has the city given adequate consideration to scaling back the center to fit the State Street site and remain within its budget; and has the county thought about relinquishing its air rights in the interest of promoting more mass-transit options to its constituents? Many of those constituents are city residents, and many more who live outside the city limits in Knox County might wish to utilize the Knox Area Transit system if it were more convenient, and if the costs of private automobile travel are to continue to escalate dramatically.

Then there’s that pesky matter of the City County Building parking fiasco, which works an unconscionable hardship on citizens who have to use the many municipal services housed there. The city should reopen the garage on the theory that odds against a terrorist attack on the building are astronomically high. The county will probably keep the parking garage closed, and its position on the issue seems totally intractable. Stubborn is the word that comes to mind. 

The issue will be put to a vote again soon. Let County Mayor Mike Ragsdale or County Commission members know how unreasonable it is to prevent public parking there in the specious interest of false security.