KINGSPORT — Kingsport has launched a new midday shuttle service to bring more people into the downtown district during lunchtime.
The new service started last week to bus folks to the downtown area from Eastman Chemical Co. and Holston Valley Medical Center between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The cost is 25 cents, round trip.
Mark Freeman, who headed the Downtown Shuttle Committee that recommended the service, said the idea is to bring more people downtown to eat and shop, and alleviate parking and traffic congestion at the same time.
“We got to looking at demographics — how many people work at Eastman, how many people work at Holston Valley, how many people work in downtown — and we realized that within a very short travel distance we could offer a shuttle and move a lot of people without them moving their cars,” Freeman said.
More than 16,000 people work along the shuttle’s 3.5-mile loop, including 7,500 at Eastman, 3,000 at Holston Valley, and 6,000 in the 44-block downtown district.
One bus travels between Building 280 at Eastman to downtown, while another bus runs the route from Holston Valley. Scheduled stops include Broad and New streets, Broad and Market streets, and Cherokee and Market streets. Stops will also be made for those who flag the bus.
Kingsport Transportation Manager Bill Albright said travel time on the shuttle is minimal — about five minutes from one destination to another.
“Because we have two buses running simultaneously in opposite directions, it provides great service time,” Albright said. “It works like a charm.”
He said the wait time for buses is no more than 15 minutes.
“If you time it right and look at the schedule and be there when you know the bus is coming by, you shouldn’t be waiting more than five minutes on the sidewalk,” Albright said.
The buses are air conditioned and can carry up to 16 passengers.
Albright said the service will operate in a trial period through the end of September.
“This is not permanent until a decision is made by the BMA (Board of Mayor and Aldermen) to make it permanent. It’s got to have enough patronage to make it worthwhile,” Albright said.
He said the shuttle schedule could change depending on usage and rider requests.
Albright noted the BMA has authorized the service to operate up to three hours each weekday.
The city has applied for a $280,000 Federal Transit Administration grant to purchase new buses for the shuttle service. Initially the city wanted to buy hybrid buses. But Albright said those vehicles are cost prohibitive, each carrying a $240,000 price tag.
“We can get three regular buses for the price of one hybrid bus,” Albright said.
He said the city should know this summer if it receives the federal grant.
The government is also expected to chip in on the cost of operating the service. Albright estimated it will cost about $33,000 a year to operate the two diesel buses. The city will fund about $6,500 of the cost, while the rest will be picked up by state and federal grants, he said.
Freeman said the benefits will outweigh the expense to the city.
“This is about getting customers downtown and generating more sales,” he said.
Lisa Childress, executive director of the Downtown Kingsport Association, said the shuttle should boost business in the downtown area.
“You can hop on the bus, ride downtown, have a sandwich or something, and you don’t have to move your car,” Childress said. “It’s a win-win situation.”
Freeman said the shuttle can also benefit the families of patients at Holston Valley by giving them a break from the hospital without them having to drive. And it gives folks who work at Eastman and in the downtown area an opportunity to ride the bus to visit friends in the hospital.