Two years ago transit officials in Knoxville, Tenn. decided that city’s bus system needed a makeover.
“We have a new brand, new public information and website design, new route system, new home ... all within the past two years,” said Belinda Woodiel-Brill, director of marketing and development at Knoxville Area Transit.
Knoxville operates a $14 million-a-year transit system with about 100 buses on 29 routes transporting about 11,700 riders a day, said Woodiel-Brill.
For guidance in developing transit proposals for Baton Rouge, Future BR urban planners looked to other cities similar to Baton Rouge — Knoxville and Charlotte, N.C., keep popping up as comparable or aspirational places — that have gone on to assemble impressive transit systems.
By comparison, Baton Rouge’s Capital Area Transit operates 60 buses on 19 routes. The current budget is $12 million.
The National Transit Database, a federally established reporting source for any transit organization receiving federal money, estimates that CATS is transporting roughly 14,000 riders a day.
(However, more recent internal CATS documents put the number of riders closer to 7,000 a day.)
The service area for the Baton Rouge transit system is considered parishwide. East Baton Rouge parish has about 430,000 residents, which means CATS has a ridership ratio of 32.6 people per 1,000.
Knoxville’s system is only citywide, giving it a ridership ratio of 68.6 people per 1,000, according to the National Transit Database.
“The Knoxville service area population is less than half of Baton Rouge’s, but it’s annual ridership is pretty close to Baton Rouge,” Joe Willhite, a transportation planner with Fregonese and Associates, the consulting firm for Future BR, pointed out.
Most of the riders in Knoxville are low- or fixed-income and use the service for commuting to work or school, said Woodiel-Brill, who went on to note that the ridership is fairly evenly mixed among black and white. The KAT service gets about 50 percent of its funding from the city of Knoxville, Woodiel-Brill added. It has no dedicated tax.
“The city of Knoxville has been very supportive of transit over the past several years,” matching our funds for building our new transit center, and coming in with additional dollars when we lost our Federal Job Access Funding several years ago. That “essentially equated to all of our night service,”?Woodiel-Brill said, calling to mind a federal transit funding program.
“Right now, we are not necessarily on council members’ radars for cost reductions,” she added. “But I also have to say that I think this city is in a fairly good — as in, not dire — position financially, if I had to guess. It might be a different story otherwise, but I think overall our current council members generally understand the impact of what we contribute to the city.”
Perhaps one of the crown jewels among transit systems in the South is another CATS — Charlotte Area Transit System in North Carolina, the largest transit system between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.
“I sort of raised an eyebrow to be compared with Charlotte,” Woodiel-Brill said of Future BR’s consideration of the two transit systems as models. “They’re sort of in a different league, but definitely something to strive for.”
Charlotte’s buses and trains serve a region of 697,000 residents — 62 percent more people than East Baton Rouge Parish, according to the National Transit Database. Charlotte’s ridership ratio is 108.6 people per 1,000 — that’s more than three times the ridership of the Baton Rouge system.
“Charlotte is the best example in the South that is doing everything right,” Willhite said. “Now, they spent a lot of money to do it. And they will readily admit that. It is the Cadillac plan.”
Many of the riders in Charlotte’s system are professional types heading to jobs. The average age is 36 years old and the average income is $28,950 a year, according to Charlotte Area Transit System documents.
Charlotte, like Baton Rouge and other cities, didn’t always have an enviable transit network, said John Muth, deputy director of the Charlotte transit system. It was a few bus lines of about 100 buses. However, around the late 1980s city leaders began developing a plan to create a transit system that would work hand-in-hand with the city’s development direction, Muth said.
“In the early ’90s, we began thinking about what our land use was going to be, and realized we can’t continue to keep sprawling,” Muth said, noting the focus was to put higher-density development in specific areas.
“The goal was not just to build a public transportation system, but to build a system that would support our land-use strategy,” Muth said. The wheels on this strategy really got rolling when Charlotte’s voters approved a half-cent sales tax dedicated to transit in 1998. CATS, as it’s now known, was born in 1999. This year, the sales tax is set to bring in $57.4 million, supplying just under 60 percent of the operating budget, Muth said.
Today, routes spider-web practically all across Mecklenburg County — and in a few locations, beyond county lines. One of the most popular routes is a 9.6-mile light-rail line stretching from downtown to Interstate 485. Those trains have generated economic development along the rails, Charlotte officials said.
“Again, it wasn’t just about doing this for transit, it was us saying, ‘How do we want to grow?’” said Muth.