published Friday, June 15th, 2012

Chattanooga's electric shuttle service turns 20

Stanley Dean boards the Downtown Shuttle, operated by CARTA, at Market Court on Broad Street.
Stanley Dean boards the Downtown Shuttle, operated by CARTA, at Market Court on Broad Street.

The quiet and clean electric shuttles that move efficiently through the central city and the North Shore have become such a common and sight that people often assume they have been a part of the urban landscape for decades. Not so. The shuttles, by one measure, still are a relatively new phenomenon. The system is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. In the life of the city, that's not long at all.

By another measure, the shuttle system is a pioneer. The role it has played in the continuing community renaissance that has prompted redevelopment and growth in the central city and on both shores of the Tennessee River should not be underestimated.

The Tennessee Aquarium is undoubtedly the main catalyst for downtown development. The Walnut Street Bridge, and the 212 Market restaurant played early and important roles, too. The shuttle helped tie those early downtown sites and the many others that followed into a cohesive whole. It continues to do so.

It is no accident that the electric shuttle system, operated by CARTA, has such a major presence here. It's role is the product of careful planning by public and private officials and entities. It was designed to provide a free service to residents and tourists and, most importantly, to pay its own way. That's almost unique in the world of public transportation these days.

Planners knew wanted a shuttle system that would connect Chattanooga's long and narrow downtown to the Aquarium and the Chattanooga Choo Choo -- the building blocks of redevelopment in 1992. After research and some trial-and-error efforts about routes and equipment, officials decided that an electric system that used tired vehicles rather than a fixed-rail, trolley like system was best. It was the correct decision, as was the determination to find a way to pay for the system and its operation without heavy dependence of subsidies.

What emerged from the planning and development stage was what the city has today. It is a system of shuttles that moves thousands of people efficiently without making noise or befouling the air. The shuttles are easy to board, comfortable to ride and have become far more than a means of getting from point to point. They have, in a phrase, also become an attraction themselves.

All that's made possible by revenues from three CARTA parking garages and other parking sites around the city. Revenues from them -- supplemented by some grants and other funding -- underwrite the shuttle system. There were predictions, that a shuttle system dependent on such revenue for funding would soon fail. That hasn't happened. Indeed, CARTA officials say that the facilities are likely to produce enough revenue this year to pay all costs associated with the shuttles and parking operations. Moreover, they project a surplus soon.

Lots of attention during a 20-year anniversary celebration understandably is focused on the past and present -- the number of miles traveled, passengers carried, noxious emissions eliminated and economic and other benefits. It's helpful to look forward, as well. Complacency is no friend of urban planners or public transportation systems.

CARTA officials and others involved in the shuttle operation know that. Their current agenda includes possible expansion -- additional routes on the North Shore and new ones to the Main Street, UTC/Erlanger and planned Moccasin Bend national park areas -- updating infrastructure and the fleet and the possible expansion of electric-powered vehicles to other areas of the community. That's an appropriate use of time and energy, and a beneficial way to use the achievements of the past 20 years as building blocks for the area' s electric shuttle and public transportation system of the future.

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In before complaints of socialism, or how the program has failed because people still need to keep going places.

June 15, 2012 at 1:19 a.m.
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