A trolley on Gay Street in downtown Knoxville. Photo by Clay Duda.

KAT’s Free Trolley System May See Significant Changes

In News by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

The mist is turning to rain as the downtown trolley pulls to the curb on Main Street one afternoon shortly before Christmas. The doors open, breathing out a smell of wet wool and stale beer. Riders arrange themselves on the green padded seats among shiny brass fittings and glowing wood paneling. Three generations of a Spanish-speaking family climb a second set of steps to sit high in the back. In the front, the driver greets a man in a wheelchair by name and nimbly snaps his wheels in place for the ride.

“I’m used to public transit in bigger cities that is not as good,” says Pat Beck, who describes herself as temporarily homeless in Knoxville. She finds the trolley waits reasonable, the trolley drivers “universally respectful and mannerly,” and the ride “family-oriented, because (regulars) get to know each other, and that improves safety.”

Knoxville’s trolley riders are generally a happy bunch. Their chief complaints about the three free downtown trolley routes is that they want more: more routes, going farther, running later. They won’t get all that they ask for, but Knoxville Area Transit has just unveiled a plan intended to expand and improve the quality of the service, at no extra cost to taxpayers.

Among the proposed improvements are trolley service to the Old City every 10 minutes, a posted schedule for every trolley stop, and later service on weekdays—all rolling out in a few months.

The plan was announced in December after an online survey and six “listening sessions” were conducted at various downtown businesses during the fall. Dawn Distler, KAT director of transit, says the project grew out of feedback she received soon after starting the job 18 months ago. Everyone told her they loved the trolleys, but didn’t know when they would show up, and thought they didn’t go to the right places.

Distler is the first to hold her city position, which was created by Mayor Madeline Rogero after a consultant analyzing the city’s bus system found its governance too confusing. She jumped in feet first.

An important early result of the trolley study, Distler says, is a changed understanding of the purpose of the trolleys. They are not just moving tourists around—which had until recently been seen as their primary focus—but also downtown residents and workers. City employees have been given free bus passes that bring them into the city center so they can take the trolley to work, Distler says, and business people and government officials are using the trolley to scoot between meetings.

Riders on different trolleys in the week before Christmas seemed almost exclusively to be locals: A mix of big families, professionals on short rides, disabled downtown residents, people living in shelters, and residents of low-income housing complexes within walking distance of downtown. (It’s also not unusual to see locals with kids who are just taking a spin for the sake of the ride, and the occasional chance to ring the bell.)

The trolley drivers tend to be gregarious and often greet riders by name. For public transportation, the atmosphere is unusually friendly. Strangers joke with each other, look for each other’s lost items, and offer cough drops to the afflicted on the opposite end of the trolley.

Even with the University of Tennessee on winter break, the Vol trolley is packed. A well-dressed woman asks the trolley driver if he knows a non-profit where she can volunteer for Christmas, and they strike up a conversation about their faith. (“All you got to do is be obedient,” says the driver. “That’s the thing our human nature doesn’t want to do.”) An older black lady wearing a knitted cap with ear flaps and pom poms tries to convince some little boys across the aisle to strike up a round of “Jingle Bells” with her.

Avoiding Cumberland Avenue construction, the trolley travels through the UT campus. Its stops aren’t marked by signs. Miranda Starkey and a friend are picking at each other good-naturedly on the ride to University Commons. They live at the Austin Homes public housing complex and walk to the trolley to go to the library and Walmart, Starkey says. She’d like the trolley to run later on weekdays and at least half the day on Sundays, but generally she says the waits are reasonable and the service is a big help.

The service times, frequency, and routes of the trolleys would change under the KAT proposal. All routes—most of which currently run until 6 p.m. weekdays—would continue service until at 8 p.m. weekdays and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

The later service is something that visitors have said they’d like, enabling them to go out to dinner and take the trolley back to their hotel, says Kim Bumpas, president of Visit Knoxville.

The majority of those who took KAT’s online trolley survey wanted a longer service day, with service running until 10 p.m. (158). Almost as many (154) said they wanted trolleys running every five minutes instead of every 10 to 12 minutes.

Almost half those surveyed (220) asked for service to be expanded to the Old City, something Bumpas says would help tourists, too. KAT plans to change the Gay Street Line to make a loop through the Old City, with a well-lit stop opposite the free parking area there.

The next most popular expansion possibilities were around Cumberland Avenue (148 votes) and the downtown waterfront (92). KAT has prioritized the waterfront for now. Distler says the Cumberland Avenue road work makes it too hard to expand service there at the moment, and the city is already offering free bus rides to that area during construction.

The new waterfront emphasis would be part of an updated Downtown Loop. It would serve The Landings apartments, where many University of Tennessee students live, while still connecting with the transit center and Civic Coliseum parking garage.

“From a visitor perspective, the waterfront makes sense,” Bumpas says. “Sometimes visitors want to see the water because it’s a river city, they like to go down there and walk around or go to Calhoun’s.”

The revised Vol line would run to the same locations around UT but terminate at a new, covered Locust Street hub. This would eliminate direct service from the transit center to the university, but that can be achieved by bus or by connecting between trolleys. In theory, that should get easier because all the trolleys will be scheduled to stop at the Locust Street hub at about the same time, Distler says. That hub is likely to be by the parking lot at the old Supreme Court building, she says.

Eliminating bus runs through the parking lots of Summit Towers and the Marriott, reducing the total length of the Vol line, and eliminating duplicated service (multiple trolleys going to the same place) will save enough time to improve trolley frequency to once every seven minutes on the downtown loop/waterfront line and to every 10-12 minutes on the Vol line, Distler says. Although trolleys are currently supposed to run every 10-12 minutes, the length of the Vol line combined with construction on Cumberland Avenue and downtown had stretched waits for the Vol line to 20 to 25 minutes, Distler says. “We were always running a little bit behind,” she says.

Those who took KAT’s online survey reported much longer waits than advertised and complained about uneven spacing of trolleys.

Liam Hysjulien takes the Vol trolley daily from near his downtown apartment to work at UT after he stopped paying for campus parking two years ago. “I can’t say it comes every 10 to 12 minutes, but it has always come at the same general time,” he says. “It’s super-convenient, and the drivers have always been really friendly and helpful about passing along information.”

Hysjulien says he’d like KAT to add a GPS tracking system like the buses on campus that would allow riders to tell how far off the bus is using a smartphone app.

This isn’t in the current plan, but KAT does propose to run the trolleys on set schedules for the first time ever. Scheduled times would be posted at each stop. (Signage at the stops would also be larger and clearer, with extra signs to direct visitors to popular nearby attractions like the elevator to the waterfront and the Knoxville Museum of Art.)

The public feedback process revealed a widespread desire for trolley service to expand to redeveloping neighborhoods near the city center, such as Emory Place, Happy Holler, Sevier Avenue, Fourth & Gill and Parkridge.

Distler says such an expansion would “require a much heftier investment” because it would likely require new trolleys and new employees. She says she’d rather focus on educating residents about the bus options in those neighborhoods, and improving those if needed.

“That serves more people, and later (at night),” Distler says. “To me it’s a matter of looking at what Knoxville needs as a whole, and not just the downtown area.”

Of course, the trolleys are free. Buses aren’t. But Distler says that different people have repeatedly approached her during the trolley project to say they’d be willing to pay for service between two points—service that does, in fact, exist via bus line.

Distler says KAT kept its trolley proposal “budget neutral” partly because she wanted to start right away. “We didn’t want to wait until another budget cycle to make some changes we knew would be better for the public and people who work and live downtown right now,” she says. “This gives us a period of time to see how our budget-neutral changes work, and see what we need to do to expand the service more or expand bus service more.”

The first of two public open houses about the plan will be held Friday, Jan. 15 from 9 a.m. to noon at Lawson McGhee Library. Distler hopes to learn whether KAT’s proposal came close to what people wanted. Since posting the plan online, Distler says she has heard satisfaction about the Old City route and the expanded hours. But she says people insist they want trolley service to extend further outside the downtown core, especially to the South Waterfront once redevelopment at the Baptist Hospital site and Sevier Avenue area are complete.

Bumpas says adding these kinds of routes would benefit tourism, but tourists are finding their way to hip nearby neighborhoods already.

“Trolley service there would be an added benefit, but we really should be happy and celebratory with where we’re at,” she says. “Because a lot of cities don’t have this, especially with it being free, and we get that feedback all the time. While it can always be better, it’s pretty dang awesome right now.”

Public Forums

It’s not too late to share what you think about the trolley proposal, which you can read at knoxvilletn.gov.

Two public open houses will be held on the plan in January: From 9 a.m. to noon Friday at Lawson McGee Library, and from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Jan. 21 at the Knoxville Station Community Room.

Then the Knoxville Transit Authority will hold a public hearing on the proposal at its Jan. 28 meeting, and vote on a final version at its Feb. 25 meeting. Each will be held at 3 p.m. in the City-County Building at 400 Main Street. You can also email comments by going to katbus.com and clicking on the “contact us” link, or calling 637-3000.

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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