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."
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."