City leaders have long touted a continuing increase in ridership throughout the Knoxville Area Transit system, particularly along the free downtown and university area routes navigated by the trolleys, the red and bronze-trimmed buses decked out to resemble vintage trams.
But, the numbers officials use are more than likely not accurate and not as high as reported, according to a WBIR 10News investigation. And, because of a federal grant formula in which more riders means more money, the bad information could impact how much federal money the city continues to receive for transit
KAT, formed in 1995 out of the K-Trans organization, operates the public bus system for Knoxville. It's comprised of more than 20 routes that charge fares and another three trolley routes that are free. It also offers shuttle services. Ridership on the fare routes, which increased by 20 percent from 2011 to 2013, is easily traced through ticket sales.
But, the trolley drivers are responsible for tracking ridership along their routes. Each time a passenger boards, the driver punches a button that chimes a bell and logs the count into the system. About a year ago, a reporter first noticed several drivers incorrectly tallying the passengers by clicking the button more than once per passenger.
In recent months, two WBIR reporters spent hours on the trolleys, monitoring the operators. The two reporters witnessed hundreds of inaccuracies by a number of drivers during the trips.
WBIR showed some of the video it recorded to KAT officials.
"It is continually stressed throughout the training to accurately record the passengers," said KAT Director of Marketing and Development Belinda Brill, calling the training "pretty extensive."
She added that drivers sometimes use different methods to record passengers "and we may be seeing some of that or we may be seeing a driver who's not properly recording passengers."
Still, Brill said officials "look for intense accuracy" and that "we will definitely do some refresher training."
She also conceded that accurate ridership numbers are crucial to securing federal funding. For example, the system this fiscal year received a $5.3 million in monies allocated based on a formula that includes factors like population, density, operating miles, and passenger miles.
If the numbers are wrong, then the system could lose at least some of those dollars. Just how much, however, isn't known at this point, but she said officials would start digging into the matter.
A LOOK AT THE SYSTEM
The trolley system uses 18 drivers and typically operates two buses per route, which run five to six days a week, depending on the schedule.
The routes are:
- Gay Street, which travels the downtown's main north-south thoroughfare and part of Hill Avenue to the Marriott.
- The Downtown Loop, which connects the Knoxville Civic Coliseum to the Church Avenue Knoxville Station while traveling along Gay Street, Summit Hill Drive, Locust Street and Main Street.
- The Vol. Line, which links the University of Tennessee via Cumberland Avenue to the Knoxville Civic Coliseum garage and Knoxville Station.
Trolley highlights include the historic Bijou Theater, the Blount Mansion, James White's Fort, the Tennessee Theatre and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.
Trolley Maps: A look at the trolley routes and schedules
Trolley ridership: The number of passengers KAT officials say use the free trolleys
Fare ridership: The number of passengers who pay to use the bus system
Budget: A look at some of KAT's revenues
KAT implemented the three current trolley routes in August 2011, the second month of fiscal year 2012, after holding a series of public meetings to determine how best to accommodate as many riders as possible.
That fiscal year, operators recorded a combined 450,647 passengers for the three routes.
The following fiscal year, ridership jumped to 677,905 passengers, according to KAT. Through the first five months of the current fiscal year, ridership stood at more than 331,300.
The biggest jumps between the first two years occurred along the Gay Street line, which saw an almost 86 percent increase in ridership from 116,319 passengers to 216,080. WBIR reporters documented more cases of inaccurate counting on that route than the other two.
On one mid-January ride along Gay Street, for example, the chiming ring of the bell continued to echo long after the passengers who boarded the bus had sat down. The driver hit the bell almost 30 times – when only seven riders had boarded.
A short time later, two passengers were counted as 10.
The Vol. Line increased by 32.5 percent from FY 12 to FY 13, and the Downtown Loop jumped 48.5 percent.
Reporters noted during a trip along the Vol. Line one driver rarely counted passengers.
FINANCING THE SYSTEM
KAT currently operates on an almost $20 million budget with just over half coming from the city, according to finance records that document the system's revenues. It also receives $2 million in state grants and another $4.7 million in federal grants. Ticket fares cover another $2.4 million.more
Knoxville is one of four city-run transportation services in the state where some federal dollars rely on the number of passengers who use the services.
The city receives money from "Section 5307" funding, also known as the Urbanized Area Formula Transit Grant Program. The grant reimburses Knoxville for fleet and facility costs, for the cost of providing the LIFT service, and for complying with federal requirements.
One percent of the funding also must be used for "transit enhancement activities," like historic preservation, landscaping, public art, pedestrian or bicycle access and enhanced access for persons with disabilities, according to federal guidelines.
Knoxville's allocation from the Section 5307 grants has increased each of the past three fiscal years, jumping from $4.5 million in FY 2011 to its current $5.3 million.
But, officials acknowledged that if KAT doesn't accurately report the number of passengers, then the city may receive more money than it should.
Brill, though, downplayed the impact, saying it could be a "slight" difference" but not a "significant" one.
"I think it would take an enormous amount of operators not recording passengers or not recording passengers correctly to statistically affect that amount," she said. "Again, it's not something that's ideal. If we've got one or two drivers out there who may not be as accurate as we'd like them to be, that's definitely something we'd look into. But I think one or two drivers that may not be as accurate as we'd like them to be, I don't think would be significant enough to affect those numbers."
She added that despite the poor tallying, trolley ridership has increased.
In the meantime, Cliff Reynolds, director of risk management for KAT, said the drivers will take a refresher course.
"(We'll want) to do a focus training that we emphasize all the retraining . . . or driving habits, things of that nature," he said.