“Its electric”

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KAT’s new all-electric buses made their public debut Thursday morning at a press conference in Caswell Park. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh

A crowd of nearly 40 people were the first passengers to experience riding on the new all-electric bus fleet operated by Knoxville Area Transit (KAT) at a Thursday morning press conference in Caswell Park.

Officials from several City departments and agencies praised the buses, which were touted as a key component of the plan to drastically reduce local carbon emissions by 80 percent over the next three decades.

Isaac Thorne, City’s Director of Transit, said that moving away from gas-guzzling vehicles can help protect the human species from the potentially lethal consequences of burning carbon for energy. 

“In the United States, transportation is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and consequently climate change. Transit has the power to change that,” Thorne said.

“By drawing new people to consider transit, reducing reliance on cars, opening up opportunities, and providing sustainable mobility choices, transit can make cities more livable, make the air cleaner, and help meet our challenging but achievable climate goals,” he said.

The City and KAT are acquiring 18 all-electric buses from the Canadian manufacturer New Flyer, plus the architecture needed to operate them. 

It is hoped that all 18 buses will be running on the streets of Knoxville by the end of 2022. They will make up 26 percent of KAT’s fleet, with another 42 percent being hybrid buses. 

Switching entirely to vehicles that use electricity is a massive project that will directly affect the everyday lives of many Knoxvillians, officials said.

A crowd of City officials (including Mayor Indya Kincannon, on the left in green) and media representatives enjoy the air conditioning on one of KAT’s new electric buses Thursday. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh

While most of the 480,000 or so residents of Knoxville and Knox County use privately owned vehicles to get around, not everyone can afford their own automobile. Many others are physically (or legally) unable to operate one. To these people, public transportation is an absolute necessity for them to work, shop, or do any of the countless out-of-the-home tasks that life requires. 

KAT’s fleet of 71 buses carry around 3 million passengers each year on its 23 bus routes and three downtown trolley routes. There are 1,150 bus stops scattered throughout the city, and bus routes come within a half-mile of 80 percent of the population. 

With more than 59 percent of the community’s carbon emissions coming from transportation, KAT and the city of Knoxville have been transitioning to sustainable mobility in recent years, said Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon.

“This is a major step on our path toward a more clean and resilient future for our children and grandchildren,” Kincannon said. “These high-efficiency electric buses are an investment in clean air, in healthy neighborhoods, and mobility for our residents.”

Although the first electric buses have arrived during Kincannon’s term in office, she was careful to give the credit to her mayoral predecessors, Bill Haslam and Madeline Rogero.

She explained that Knoxville’s operational carbon emissions have fallen 32 percent since 2005 as the transit fleet has moved from diesel buses to hybrid vehicles and now electric ones, but the City’s long-term goals are far tighter.

Mayor Indya Kincannon (right) and City Councilperson Tommy Smith climbs onto one of KAT’s new electric buses Thursday. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh

Knoxville aims to reduce operational emissions by 50 percent in 2030 and overall community emissions by 80 percent in 2050, she explained.

Although the people that gathered at Caswell Park were given the chance to enjoy a 10-minute inaugural ride, the general public won’t have a chance to try out the buses until they begin taking over routes in January.

The first two routes to see the electric buses in regular service will be Routes 17–Sutherland and 31–Magnolia Avenue, Thorne said, although the results of on-street trials over the next few months could change those plans.

Only five have actually been delivered to the City so far. Between now and the deployment of the full order, KAT employees will have their hands full familiarizing themselves with all-new systems, explained Belinda Woodiel-Brill, KAT’s director of planning.

“Not only do our drivers need the time to learn how to operate the buses, our people also have to learn how to maintain and keep the buses running, they have to be sure they can charge them,” she said.

A key partner in the electric bus program is the Knoxville Utilities Board (KUB), which is currently installing charging stations for the first dozen vehicles. 

“This is an exciting day for Knoxville, and KUB is proud to be part of it,” said Gabriel Bolas, KUB President and CEO. “KUB supports electric vehicles in our community, and we’re proud to be a partner with the City of Knoxville in building a more sustainable future.” 

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

 Published on September 17, 2021.