Public transit in jeopardy

Jeremy Styron-News-Herald

More than 250 county residents and 1,700 other residents across the region who depend on East Tennessee Human Resources Agency transportation services could be negatively impacted by new federal funding regulations that would not allow ETHRA to offer affordable trips to certain parts of Lenoir City and the city of Loudon.

Mike Patterson, transportation director with ETHRA, said because ETHRA is a rural service provider, the organization will no longer receive money from the U.S. Federal Transit Administration to pick up people in urbanized areas.

Under Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, commonly known as Map-21, legislation that President Barack Obama signed into law last July, Knoxville will now be the recipient for urbanized area funding.

ETHRA officials, along with city and county mayors, are currently working with Knoxville on striking a deal so the new legislation would not affect people who need public transportation in Loudon and other parts of East Tennessee.

"We feel like we're going to have a resolution so that folks are not going to lose their transportation services," Patterson said. "We hope that's going to be the case, and I feel assured that's going to happen, but nothing's guaranteed. But the thing we wanted to do is we needed to let our county mayors know and our city mayors know what could happen."

Patterson said residents who receive TennCare would not be affected, only members of the general public who live in designated urbanized areas. The new regulations are set to take effect in two months. "ETHRA does not have a turf war," Patterson said. "We want folks to get transportation, whether we do it or the city of Knoxville does it. But they're not in-demand response. They're more into the fixed routes and the big buses, but they have reached out to us to meet with us so that we can work something out by July."

Ron Jordan, who is chairman of the Committee of 100, recently petitioned local officials to write Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero about the impending changes and how it will affect residents.

"So Knoxville is going to control the money, and what we're trying to do, I'm asking the Committee of 100 to pen a letter or an email and send it to the mayor of Knoxville saying do the right thing," Jordan said. "Don't leave these folk out, to meet with our county leadership to talk this out to see if we can keep from leaving these poor people out."

Jesse Mayshark, Knoxville communications manager, said the city was receptive to talking about the issue, noting that the mayor's office was planning to meet next month with the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization and city and county mayors.

"From the city of Knoxville's standpoint, we're very willing to sit down and talk about (it) and really try to understand the impact of these changes and how everybody can work together to try to address the negative impact," Mayshark said.

Patterson said ETHRA keeps track of the people it serves and will send out a letter to those who might be affected by the legislation. While ETHRA has a map showing which specific streets are to be serviced under the new law, the formula was difficult for lay people to understand.

"It's hard for you and I to understand," Patterson said. "Imagine an older person going to dialysis, and that's the people that we're really concerned about."

ETHRA currently charges a fare of $3 for a one-way trip. Patterson, who said the new legislation would affect Loudon County and parts of Anderson, Blount and Sevier counties, did not anticipate any rate increases.

"That's a last resort," Patterson said. "We've held off on that. Our board would not want to consider that unless it is a last resort. Folks that we provide transportation to now, some of them can't afford $3, so if we increase to $5, folks it's going to hurt it's going to be that segment anyway."