published Saturday, July 5th, 2014

CARTA eyes new Enterprise South line: Bus route called parking solution for thousands of workers

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    The Enterprise South industrial park hosts Volkswagen and Amazon facilities.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
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See where Enterprise South employees live at timesfreepress.com/carta.

Volkswagen quality inspector Sean Moss knows it takes a strategic plan to find front-row parking at the largest industrial park in the region, Enterprise South. For him, that means arriving an hour before his 6 a.m. shift to get a spot in rows 1 through 10, which leaves him only a 10-minute hike to the plant door.

From East Brainerd to Pikeville to South Pittsburg, from inside and outside Hamilton County, 5,000-plus employees commute daily to Enterprise South, looking for space in the crowded lots.

Some carpool. Some walk a half-mile to get to the front of their building. At least one employer has adapted work shifts to give employees coming and going time to empty and refill parking spots. During the holidays, when Amazon hires thousands of temporary employees, the road looks like its own parking lot when everyone tries to get home.

Efficiently moving employees and supplies is key to productivity at the park and will become even more important if Chattanooga's VW plant is chosen to build the company's planned midsize SUV.

That's why the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority is aiming for a state grant to add its first major bus route since 1998, offering a shuttle service that would drop off employees at the 11 businesses across Enterprise South -- a major undertaking that requires studying each business shift change and coordinating with some of the 16 current bus routes across the city.

"It's going to take serious planning work," said Lisa Maragnano, CARTA's director. "Because if nobody rides we'll have to put it out and take it off; that's just heartache for anybody."

To find out how many Enterprise South employees live in the Chattanooga city limits to justify the new bus route, CARTA partnered with the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce to conduct a ZIP code survey that pinpointed workers' locations.

More than 2,000 Enterprise South employees live within the city limits. Of those, the largest number -- about 730 -- live in East Brainerd. About 379 live in Hixson, although some are outside Chattanooga's city limits, and 236 live in Brainerd.

But there are only a handful of workers in the smaller communities where unemployment is high. East Lake has 68 employees, while Alton Park has 35.

City Councilman Yusuf Hakeem said one of the main purposes for a direct route to Enterprise South should be to target high-unemployment areas.

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    Three CARTA buses head down Broad Street in Chattanooga, Tenn.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith.
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In pockets of the city, potential workers may not have cars and no other way to get to the jobs at the plant. The closest bus route to the industrial park is off Bonny Oaks Drive, which would mean a 30-minute walk to the front of Volkswagen Drive.

"We've got to get people to the jobs," he said.

Charles Wood, the Chamber's vice president for economic development, said the goal of adding employment options is a huge driver for a new route, but officials don't yet have plans for targeting specific high-unemployment areas.

CARTA's preliminary plan calls either for adding a bus route in the largest ZIP code areas where employees live or using the existing fixed routes in those locations to bring employees to one of CARTA's eight park-and-ride locations in areas from Northgate Mall to Highway 58. From there, shuttle buses would haul employees to and from their jobs at the industrial park.

But before any plans can be cemented, CARTA has to get the money to add the route. Officials have applied for a three-year, $1.5 million state grant, and Chattanooga has committed $300,000 in the 2015 fiscal budget for the project.

Those costs would go toward payroll, bus maintenance, fuel, marketing and other operational expenses, said Maragnano.

The second hurdle will be convincing employees that unlimited rides and efficient, fast and reliable service is worth a $50 monthly fee.

Most shifts in the companies at Enterprise South, from the manufacturing plant Gestamp to the Amazon Fulfillment Center, start between 6 and 8 a.m. Most evening shifts start around 6 p.m.

That means the bus routes would need to run in the mornings and evenings to accommodate the largest number of employees, Maragnano said, but that also means the shuttle won't be an option for some smaller companies with odd shift times.

Wood said the companies in Enterprise South have a real interest in seeing this route added to give their employees more options and cut down on parking problems.

During last year's holiday season, Amazon had to offer alternative parking in a soccer field on Bonny Oaks. Tag Manufacturing's lot is completely full, even as the owners say they are looking to expand.

There is currently an hour lag time between shifts, said co-owner Terry Wilt of Tag Manufacturing, a steel fabrication company that was the first to build in the Enterprise South park. And next week he plans to meet with city and county officials to work out a deal for a new parking lot.

"If employees would use a [bus] that would be a great idea," Wilt said.

If the money is available, Maragnano's dream is to introduce at least one bus in time for early October when Amazon typically starts to hire its holiday staff.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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