published Friday, May 13th, 2011

Chattanooga ranks last in transit access

Chattanooga’s access to mass transit ranks last among the nation’s top 100 metropolitan areas in a report released Thursday by the Brookings Institution.

Neighboring cities Nashville and Knoxville also ranked near the bottom of the list, at 93rd and 98th, respectively, while residents of Honolulu have the best access to mass transit in the country, the think tank reported.

The two-year study gave CARTA high marks for providing access to jobs and for its service frequency, but rated geographical coverage for metro residents the worst of the group.

According to Brookings, mass transit service in the Chattanooga metro area reaches 53 percent of low-income residents, just 20 percent of those in the middle income bracket and a mere 3.7 percent of high-income Chattanoogans.

On average, about 22.5 percent of metro Chattanooga residents live within three-quarters of a mile of a bus route.

“This does not surprise me at all,” said Tom Dugan, executive director of the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority. “Basically, we don’t put a lot of money into our transit in Chattanooga.”

Growth in far-flung Hamilton County suburbs, hilly topography and lack of participation by outlying municipalities makes covering every metro resident a financial impossibility, Dugan said.

In a news conference announcing the report, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that it’s all about priorities. He said Americans’ habits will change as gas gets more expensive and isolated living becomes impractical.

“I think Americans are going to rely on transit as gasoline prices go up because it’s affordable, but accessibility is also very important,” LaHood said. “As long as [gas prices] stay as high as they are, people are going to be looking at alternatives.”

Fluctuating gas prices over the years haven’t done much to increase transit use in Chattanooga.

According to a 2008 report to the city, fares cover only part of CARTA’s costs. The transit agency relies on city and county funds for 27 percent of its operating budget.

But the agency’s local funding share is at the same level as 2003, despite rising fuel and personnel costs, Dugan said.

And while Chattanooga’s local support has remained the same, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville have raised their support for transit. Memphis and Nashville spend more than twice as much per capita on transit than Chattanooga.

CARTA’s 2008 report considered 57 other U.S. cities about Chattanooga’s size and found that on average, local governments kicked in 57 percent of the cost for mass transit, or $29.04 per resident, compared to $10.21 per resident here.

The service used to cover Signal Mountain, Lookout Mountain, Collegedale, Soddy-Daisy and even Fort Ogle-thorpe, Dugan said, but local governments outside Chattanooga dropped out over the years.

Urban or Suburban

Dugan contends that the United States made a choice to favor automobile travel over mass transit when it began constructing the Eisenhower Interstate System in 1956.

And Chattanooga doesn’t suffer from the same congestion problems as New York, Los Angeles or Atlanta. It hasn’t grown as fast, and what growth has occurred has pressed outward, he said.

“People use transit when there is congestion and bad traffic — when they get frustrated,” he said.

Locally, widening roads such as Hixson Pike, Brainerd Road and Gunbarrel Road puts more pressure on bus riders, who must sprint across larger and larger expanses of blacktop to get to increasingly disused bus stops, he said.

The Brookings study says it will take direct government intervention to persuade suburbanites to give up their big yards and cars for city apartments and mass transit.

If better mass transit means lower unemployment and more interest from employers, then the way forward is to tax residents and build the system, Brookings officials said Thursday.

But that’s a hard sell, according to Keith Parker, CEO of San Antonio’s transit system.

“I don’t think very many Southerners would say we want more government in our daily lives,” he said, though he is preparing to present a multibillion transit expansion to San Antonio’s taxpayers.

J.Ed. Marston, vice president of marketing and communications for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said mass transit has never been a consideration for any of the companies he’s talked with about locating their businesses in Chattanooga.

“It’s never come up in conversations as an issue one way or another,” Marston said. “The companies’ primary concerns are that employees are able to get to work on time, and at this point, that has not branched out into specific thoughts as to how that happens.”

Differing priorities

Brookings on Thursday emphasized a cohesive regional transit plan in its study as the most successful way to create jobs and build better communities.

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield also said it’s necessary to expand transit into outlying areas, especially given industrial growth.

“When you’re talking about the thousands of people working out at Enterprise South, we really need to plan how we’re going to get those folks to and from work,” Littlefield said.

While any expanded system wouldn’t run at a profit, he said, “the public has an interest in having a community that has a way for people to get around other than automobiles.”

Knoxville Area Transit, like CARTA, has focused on serving its downtown core rather than far-flung suburbs, said Cindy McGinnis, the agency’s general manager.

“The way a local transit system is going to look is based largely on the priorities of the area,” she said. “Access to jobs is only one facet of the service that a transit system provides.”

John Bridger, executive director of Chattanooga’s Regional Planning Agency, said he’ll be looking at the role of mass transit in the city in two major studies to be completed over the next two years.

Still, change won’t be instantaneous, he said.

“As this community changes over the next 20 to 30 years, [transit] is going to become more of a key part of our transportation options,” Bridger said.

In the meantime, the community is taking baby steps to increase transportation options for both inner-city and suburban residents, he said.

“Mass transit for somebody out in Ooltewah in the immediate future might not be a realistic option, but carpooling may be,” he said. “You’ve got to be realistic about your current environment.”

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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cc333 said...

It's pathetic ! I drive, but 2 months ago went to take a bus downtown,it costs a $1 for one-way w/ no transfer 'possible'(meaning unless the bus-lines are perfect for you/your area,it costs $4 round trip). Mass transit is a good thing & to say it needs improvement here is a drastic under-statement. The electric shuttle downtown is cool tho.

May 13, 2011 at 2:16 a.m.
rolando said...

"The Brookings study says it will take direct government intervention to persuade suburbanites to give up their big yards and cars for city apartments and mass transit."

And there is the crux of the issue. Bigger government with increased power - through taxation - to force people into easily controlled little boxes.

May 13, 2011 at 4:23 a.m.
tntoak said...

Even at $1 one segment/$4 round trip it's better than the buses up here in Anchorage. Here, it's $1.75 each bus or $5 for an unlimited day pass. There are also monthly or annual options. The problem is that unless you're near one of the handful of routes that run more than once an hour, or you're near a place where multiple routes converge, you're basically guaranteed to take at least two buses each way and have anywhere from a 30 min - hour wait between buses. And there are no free shuttle options here at all. That is one big advantage Chattanooga has.

May 13, 2011 at 6:20 a.m.
BigRidgePatriot said...

We need more empty buses running in circles around town! Because the brilliant minds of progressives tell us so.

And the rich should pay for it.

May 13, 2011 at 9:13 a.m.
jrandallsexton said...

I mentioned this about an article yesterday: Please cite sources. If you're referring to a study, please provide a URL to the source. Not to be mean, but that is rudimentary is it not?

So I went and found it myself.

May 13, 2011 at 9:13 a.m.
Leaf said...

Mass transit is a local issue. On Oahu in HI the buses work very well because it's just a small place. In urban areas it's a necessity because you just couldn't fit that many cars in NYC. In Chattanooga, it's not really necessary because we have plenty of space and lower density.

As cars transition away from gasoline I see no reason from an economic or environmental standpoint to set policy to favor mass transit over personal transportation in small cities like Chattanooga. Create bus routes where it makes sense, but you can't force people to take buses if it triples their commute time.

There are "believers" on both sides of the issue who either love mass transit or hate it. But it's not religion, it's math. You can do the math and figure out whether it's feasible for a particular location or not.

May 13, 2011 at 9:29 a.m.
LibDem said...

L4F and BRP stick to streets and highways built and run by Road-R-Us, Inc.

May 13, 2011 at 12:05 p.m.
LibDem said...

No, L4F, I guess I don't see GASOLINE TAXES as private sector. I don't doubt, however, that you call Gasoline Taxes, Inc. for pot hole repair on your street.

May 13, 2011 at 2:15 p.m.
heneh said...

There is much more to this story than what you read in the article. Chattanooga is a member of ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability founded 1990 as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. If you go to their website you will find their connection to UN Agenda 21 which is where you get the terms “Smart Growth” and “Sustainable Development” that you have been hearing about lately. Long story short Agenda 21 is about changing our way of living to meet their extreme environmental standards. One thing they do not like is cars because they think cars are one cause of global warming. Therefore people must be coaxed (forced) into taking mass transit. The Chattanooga Climate Action Plan came about by the software and instruction from ICLEI therefore it reflects the same ideas and goals of Agenda 21. If you think this sounds crazy go to their our documents and read for yourself. there you will see their connection to UN Agenda 21. Read their Charter and By-Laws also in their By-Laws it states ICLEI offices shall encourage members to endorse the Earth Charter Principles so you might want to read that as well. To help make this more clear go to There is lots of grant money to be had if Chattanooga goes along with this so you see why the interest but I don’t think the elected officials have done the research as to where this all takes us. So Chattanooga wake up and get informed or we will all turn around one day and find ourselves in a city we do not recognize. We need planning for the future but not from this group.

May 13, 2011 at 2:30 p.m.
Salsa said...

Sorry L4F but roads are not built by GASOLINE TAXES. That's a common belief but it is wrong. Your local roads are built from property taxes and sales taxes. Gasoline taxes don't come close to paying for roads and are sometimes diverted to non-road building uses. Since 1947, the amount of money spent on highways, roads and streets has exceeded the amount raised through gasoline taxes and other so-called “user fees” by $600 billion.

May 13, 2011 at 4:28 p.m.
heneh said...

I did some checking on the Brookings Institution and seems like they are funded directly by George Soros according to

Mr. Smith there is a lot more behind this story if you would do some checking.

May 17, 2011 at 4:58 p.m.
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