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Knoxville Area Transit: Current Operations and Results of the Pandemic

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S. Heather Duncan
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Passengers at the main KAT bus depot on Church Street in January, 2022.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down normal life in 2020, Knoxville Area Transit (KAT) found itself in the unusual position of asking people not to ride the bus.

“In my 20-some odd years at KAT, I’ve never had a time when we were actually actively discouraging people from riding the bus,” said Belinda Woodiel-Brill, KAT’s director of planning and public information. “It was unreal. It was like, what are we doing? This is the craziest thing.”

The goal was to reduce the spread of disease. Seats were blocked off and lower capacity limits were added. Fares were discontinued so drivers wouldn’t have to interact as much with passengers. Ridership plummeted as businesses closed and residents stayed home.

Buses stopped coming as often on some of KAT’s most heavily-used routes between April and July of 2020. Full service resumed for just four months before a driver shortage ended it again.

For over a year, Broadway, Magnolia and Kingston Pike routes have operated without their peak 15-minute service. Sutherland, Central, Burlington, Dandridge, South Knoxville and Vestal routes all dropped from 30-minute frequency to once an hour. Start and end times of bus service never changed, except that the downtown trolleys stopped offering extended weekend hours. 

“People’s asked what they’re going to do with the schedules and everything. I don’t even know myself,” said Jeff Cashion, who has driven buses for KAT for 41 years. He currently drives the Kingston Pike route. “Ridership is down. They’re not riding because they’re not working.”

But residents still need reliable transportation to buy food and medicine.

While living for a few months at the Family Promise homeless shelter on Middlebrook Pike, Jasmine Henshaw and her family needed to get to grocery stores where they could use gift cards. But some days the bus didn’t come at all. On others, the wait was long because the buses came so rarely. Time-consuming transfers were required to get to Food City on Middlebrook Pike – all with an infant and a toddler in tow.

“Just going to the store would be like three or four hours sometimes,” Henshaw said. “And if you walk down here and you miss it by just a minute, you’re waiting forever.”

Henshaw and her husband are now relieved to have a home and a car so they don't need to take the bus.

For those who do, KAT plans to restore 30-minute service to four routes by the end of February, Woodiel-Brill said.

“We are so eager to get back to that regular service,” she said. “I know it’s been so hard on our passengers to have that change.”

A shortage of drivers

But the driver shortage prevents bringing full service back to the entire system. In January, 162 of KAT’s 215 driver positions were open, Woodiel-Brill said.

“Replacing retirees has been the missing link that normally comes easier to us,” she said. “Regular retention is challenging, too.”

Melissa Stooksbury, financial secretary of Local Amalgamated Transit Union 1164, said current wages and split work shifts for starting drivers make the job a hard sell. “I think transit companies are going to have to raise their wages in order to hire and keep people,” said Stooksbury, who drives two school bus routes on top of her 8-hour KAT shift daily.

She noted that nationally, potential drivers are choosing fast food jobs instead, as some of those shift starting pay to $15 or $16. That’s on par with starting bus driver pay – yet driving requires more in terms of fitness, training, and obtaining a commercial driver’s license.

Stooksbury predicts the new Amazon distribution center will compete with KAT for drivers, while some have already left for long-haul trucking jobs or because of COVID exposure concerns.

Stooksbury said many KAT drivers have been sick, especially since the Omicron variant of COVID-19 became common. Woodiel-Brill said driver absenteeism is currently about 20 percent higher than it was before COVID.

KAT’s starting driver pay is about $2 less than Nashville’s, but the state capitol is a bigger city, Woodiel-Brill said. “We have outstanding benefits, but I don’t think people always look at that,” she said. “It adds almost 30 percent to the base wage.”

After failing to reach a new union contract agreement last fall, KAT paid members a $500 bonus to extend the process. Stooksbury said the main sticking points are health benefits and a pay increase beyond the standard 3 percent because of the risks drivers have taken to stay on the job during the pandemic.

“We are essential workers, and we haven’t stopped service,” she said. “We haven’t closed down – which I’m very grateful for because I have a job – but we would like to see a wage increase.”

Contract negotiations are expected to resume later this month, Stooksbury said.

Although service has been reduced, so have prices for bus riders. Riding was free from March 2020 until February of the next year. After that, fares resumed at lower rates. All rides are $1 instead of $1.50, and the 50-cent transfer fee was eliminated. The cost of a daily pass was halved to $2.

Fares are likely to remain reduced until KAT launches an upgraded payment system in about 18 months, she said. The new system will allow people to pay per ride using a smartphone or smart card instead of cash.

A monthly pass (regularly $50, currently $30) will also be more accessible to low-income workers, because they won’t have to pay for it up front any more. The system will allow them to pay for it over time as they ride, Woodiel-Brill said.

As a result of the ongoing reduced prices, KAT’s income from fares last fiscal year dropped to less than a quarter of pre-pandemic levels. Fare revenue used to cover 9 percent of KAT’s budget. The City of Knoxville provided about 59 percent, with the rest mostly federal dollars. Federal pandemic recovery funds will make up the fare losses through July, Woodiel-Brill said.

Grants for equipment upgrades

Despite the squeeze, KAT continues to improve its facilities and buses by pursuing grants.

It’s adding in-route electric bus charging equipment using $1.6 million in federal air quality improvement funds, matched by $400,000 from KAT. This infrastructure will allow KAT’s new fleet of electric buses to operate all day, beyond an initial full charge. Currently KAT has 12 electric buses, 28 hybrids and 29 “clean” diesel buses that filter fine particles from the exhaust. KAT plans to add six more electric buses in the next year, Woodiel-Brill said.

Last month KAT received a $900,000 federal grant to add more bus shelters and benches, plus electric signs depicting expected bus arrivals in real time. Some combination of improvements will likely be installed at 150 to 200 bus stops, Woodiel-Brill said. (KAT’s 23 routes include more than 1,000 bus stops.)

KAT is currently establishing priorities for bus stop improvements, and will announce the plan in more detail in the coming weeks. The busiest boarding locations, passenger requests, and logistical factors will determine which stops get priority. Ownership and space constraints can make it more expensive or even impossible to increase the footprint of some bus stops, Woodiel-Brill said. The public will be encouraged to comment on the draft priorities list before the program is finalized.

Some of the bus stops don’t have safe sidewalks, much less shelters. Henshaw said she’d like to see those prioritized, because it’s so difficult for a family that rides the bus to keep children out of danger. She and her husband struggled to protect their 4-year-old daughter during long waits at the curb of a busy road.

Many, many times we just had to hold her hand for dear life,” she said. “More and more people are having to do without their vehicles or take other transportation because of how expensive that is. When you have kids, it’s a definite safety issue.”

KAT already has bus shelters at many bus stops. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, public transit agencies are legally required to assess the equity of their facilities and report to the Federal Transit Administration. KAT’s 2020 report demonstrated that it was meeting those requirements.

“When we do get new shelters out there, we always look at our balance” among the city’s four directional quadrants, Woodiel-Brill said. That includes the predominantly African American routes on the east side of town. “We want to make sure those predominantly minority routes have equal or better amenities as compared with the rest of the system, and we are accomplishing that,” she said.

Already, at least half of KAT bus boardings happen at a covered location, although that includes the downtown bus depot, she said. Recent streetscape improvements at Magnolia and Central avenues also included enhanced bus shelters.

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