KINGSPORT - City leaders are leaning toward adding a new downtown, midday shuttle service to the Kingsport Area Transit System - with buses running from two of the Model City's largest employers to the restaurants and businesses in the downtown area.
During a work session Monday afternoon, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen heard a presentation on the proposed service, dubbed the Midtown/Midday shuttle service. The new route would run from Eastman Chemical Co.'s Building 280 through downtown to Holston Valley Medical Center with three stops along the way - Broad and New, Broad and Market, and Cherokee and Market.
The proposal calls for two buses to run the three-mile route from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Kingsport Transportation Manager Bill Albright said the city would aim for buses to arrive at each stop every 10 minutes, with the entire run being a 15-minute trip. The charge for a round trip has yet to be determined.
Albright said the reason for creating the service would be to offer quick trips to and from downtown, to alleviate traffic and free up parking, and to encourage people to visit downtown businesses and restaurants.
"The goal is to make the service quick and easy to use," Albright said.
City Manager John Campbell said he was pleased with the results of the proposal and urged the BMA to strongly consider its approval.
"It provides linkage between two employment centers through the downtown area. It makes downtown stronger and provides greater access for employees," Campbell said.
If approved, Kingsport would implement the service using two of its existing 16-passenger diesel buses.
Albright said the city would likely switch over to hybrid buses over a two-year period. Hybrid buses cost about $200,000 each, and the city's portion of that expense would be $20,000.
"We have plans to get (a hybrid bus) next fall," Albright said. "We would start with the 16-passenger mini-buses ... and hopefully transition to hybrids."
Albright said the new service would not affect KATS' four fixed routes throughout the city or its paratransit service.
"This is just an additional service," he said.
Albright said Kingsport is "not really" just making accommodations for Holston Valley and Eastman.
"Those are just ending points. We're going to work our way through downtown from one end to the other and service as many people as we can in that area," Albright said. "The terminus at the hospital and Eastman are just auxiliary turnaround points that make a logical place to reverse your route and also pick up ridership."
Taking into account the cost of labor, fuel, maintenance and administration, the estimated yearly cost to operate two diesel buses would be $32,800. If the city were to use hybrid buses, the cost would be $30,200.
If a 50 cent fee is charged, Albright said Kingsport would generate around $15,200 a year with an estimated 50 percent capacity rate on the buses.
If Kingsport were to offer the service for free, the operating costs for the city and state would be $8,200 a year, while the federal government's share would be $16,400. If Kingsport implements the 50 cent fee, then all three governmental entities' portions would be cut in half.
Campbell suggested the city conduct a 100-day trial for the new service, from May to Labor Day, to gauge the public's interest. The cost of this trial period is estimated to be $3,500 and could be done within KATS' existing budget.
While the BMA appeared to support the overall proposal, city leaders did debate whether the service should be free or cost 50 cents.
"For the midday service taking into account what it is and fostering business downtown, I think it's important for it to be free during lunch," Alderman Ben Mallicote said.
Alderman Ken Maness said it's not a great idea to subsidize the service from a city standpoint.
"I think we should make it break-even utilizing the 50 percent capacity," Maness said.
Alderman Pat Shull agreed.
"If we don't make it break-even, then we're open to be favoring one part of town versus another," Shull said.
"We're not doing it to serve riders. We're doing it to serve downtown," Mallicote said.