KAT's Cuts, Cut

Knoxville's bus system's back to the drawing board after the Knoxville Transportation Authority aborts plans to quit suburban routes

Knoxville Area Transit, flanked by financial crises associated with rising gasoline prices, laid out a strategy last week to the Knoxville Transportation Authority, as well as to citizens in attendance, in the large conference room at the City County Building. The KTA unanimously approved KAT's proposals for raising more revenue for the bus system; and the KTA unanimously rejected all of KAT's proposals for route cutbacks.

The immediate problem is shared by many; the price of gasoline is rising. That fact might seem good for public transit; and in terms of increasing ridership, it is. KAT hasn't been more popular in decades. But fares account for only 10 percent of KAT's revenue, and the relatively modest additional revenue is not enough to offset the price of running the buses. A second problem is also related to gas prices rising; federal and state funding for KAT, which together account for about a third of its budget, are linked to gasoline-tax revenue, which declines as people drive less. The two hard facts seem to be converging on public transit in a pincer movement.

KAT laid out a plan of new revenue sources, most of which were not controversial, at least not in that room. Among them, a modest hike in Vol football game-day shuttles (from $4 to $5; and, in Farragut's case, from $10 to $15), and in charter rate (from $70 to $100). Together, those additions will raise about $65,000, a modest amount. A re-institution of bus advertising, inside and outside the buses, is expected to bring in an additional $300,000 annually. Cindy McGinnis, general manager of KAT, says the bus system dropped ads about six years ago after experiences with undependable contractors and some technical problems. Thanks to new technology, they're reviewing the idea. "Now there are beautiful vinyl graphics, attached directly to the bus, like a decal," she says. The KTA approved all the revenue-generating ideas, so we'll see ads on buses in the near future.

The proposed cutbacks were a different story. KAT left some threatened services, like KAT's already-limited Sunday routes, intact, while insisting on cuts to other services. The administrative proposal called for the elimination of two suburban express routes, the Halls and Farragut lines, and for a curtailment of its LIFT service, a special bus that picks up the disbled at their own homes. For some years, KAT has gone beyond its Americans with Disabilities Act mandate, which demands that bus systems pick up disabled passengers if they live within three-quarters of a mile of a route. KAT's proposed cutback would retreat to the ADA minimum.

It was, at least in that room, not a popular measure. Most of the 60-odd attendees last Thursday afternoon seemed there to oppose one of the three cutbacks. One by one, about 25 people approached the microphone, some in wheelchairs, to denounce the plan or plead for another option. Some were angry and even crying. One man jeered at the seeming senselessness of cutting back on public transit just when citizens need it the most.

To McGinnis, cutting Farragut and Halls is a natural target. Most of KAT's operating budget comes from taxpayer-supported government; their largest single funder is the City of Knoxville, which funds about half of KAT's budget. However, residents of Farragut and Halls don't currently contribute to any local government entity that supports public transit.

About three speakers alluded to the fact that city taxpayers are effectively subsidizing Halls and Farragut riders. Knoxville property owners pay both city and county taxes; Halls and Farragut residents' taxes are much lower, and aren't earmarked for public transit. Compounding the inequity is that those routes cost the same—$1.25, for a standard fare, though suburban destinations are more costly, especially in fuel expenses. (One Farragut route booster mentioned that round-trip cab fare from downtown Knoxville to Farragut might run as high as $70.)

One Farragut rider declared that Farragut's city government had been "quite generous" in its offer of $20,000 to help subsidize the future maintenance of the Farragut route. Whether generous or not (that's about a dollar a year, per Farragut citizen), KAT says it would pay for only one-fifth of the Farragut route's expense. A few citizens, as well as the very vocal KTA member Art Carmichael, challenged the audience to take their case to Knox County government as well as to the town of Farragut.

One rider made a point that in transporting non-city residents, KAT is indeed supporting the city by making it easier for people to work in Knoxville, and by mitigating, to some degree, traffic and pollution.

More important, McGinnis says, was making cutbacks that wouldn't affect people who have no other transportation options. "These passengers have options available to them," namely, automobiles. In short, people who live in suburbs have access to working cars, or they wouldn't be living in the suburbs. That's not true for many in-city Knoxvillians.

As of this week, McGinnis expects they may find some way to accommodate the Halls and Farragut routes, albeit probably with higher rates. Rate-hike hearings will come later in the year.

She's not as sure about keeping the full range of the LIFT program. One handicapped rider approached the lectern and praised it as "the most effective paratransit system in the state."

"The LIFT service is incredibly expensive," says McGinnis, who came to KAT about two years ago. She says a lift trip costs KAT, on average, $28, but costs the passenger only $2.50. She says the city found itself supporting the LIFT even beyond the ADA's three-quarter-mile boundary after some awkward finger annexations, especially along Northshore Drive and Pellissippi Parkway, and also into Strawberry Plains, sometimes as much as six miles off a main bus route. On these jaunts, she says, KAT ceases to be "mass transit," literally: "Most always, only one passenger is on the vehicle traveling to these areas," she says, adding that there's also an "equity issue": able-bodied riders don't have comparable access to off-route areas. She adds that not cutting services to the few people who live outside the designated service areas will likely force other cutbacks, which will also be felt by the handicapped.

Knoxville Disabilities Coordinator Stephanie Cook, who uses a wheelchair herself, sees both sides. The cutbacks are "reasonable from a budgetary standpoint," she says. "It's not reasonable from the standpoint of the rider who is dependent on the LIFT.

"There are alternatives," she adds. "Plenty of people use CAC and ETHRA," she says, referring to the Community Action Committee, one of the few public-transit programs Knox County does support, and the non-profit East Tennessee Human Resources Agency, supported by the state and by private donations. Both provide some door-to-door services for the handicapped, especially the essential ones. "You can take them to go to work, or a doctor's visit," she says, "but I don't think you can take it to go to the movies. With the KAT LIFT, you can."

For the time being, KTA has nixed all of KAT's proposed cutbacks with conviction that public transit should never be diminished, but with no solution to the problem. As a few mentioned during the meeting, the city bankrolls KAT's debt, which is currently at about $7 million, and growing. McGinnis suggests KAT will have a clearer idea about proposed rate hikes when they meet to discuss them in September, but it's not clear that rate hikes alone will solve the remaining deficit.