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Success Stories

Image: Electric Bus Chattanooga/Hamilton-County, Tennessee
"If we are to achieve economic and environmental sustainability, we cannot design products or cities as we have in the past. Chattanooga's sustainability depends on recruiting, incubating, and developing businesses that eliminate waste and pollution from manufacturing processes and products." 

- David Crockett, Chattanooga City Council   

City of Chatanooga Emblem


Chattanooga and Hamilton County, Tennessee are reversing a history of environmental neglect by infusing sustainability concepts and practices into all aspects of local planning and public services. The area's efforts cover open space preservation, waste materials reuse and recycling, watershed management, reclamation of polluted industrial sites for clean manufacturing, and creative transportation strategies. A prominent example of local sustainability initiatives, the transit authority for the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County formed an innovative public-private partnership to develop, build, test, and operate electric transit vehicles (ETVs) and ETV systems in downtown Chattanooga. Since 1991, 10 electric buses have gone in service on a downtown shuttle route, a local non-profit has been launched to promote research and provide information, and a company has been formed to manufacture electric buses. The program's "Living Laboratory" brings participants together to develop ETVs and share their discoveries worldwide. Program benefits include reduced congestion on downtown streets, reduced air emissions, and over 30 new manufacturing jobs.  The local transit authority for the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County formed an innovative public-private partnership to develop, build, test, and operate electric transit vehicles (ETVs) and ETV systems in downtown Chattanooga. Since 1991, nine electric buses have gone in service on a downtown shuttle route, a local non-profit has been launched to promote research and provide information, and a company has been formed to manufacture electric buses. The program's "Living Laboratory" brings participants together to develop ETVs and share their discoveries worldwide. Program benefits include reduced congestion on downtown streets, reduced air emissions, and over 30 new manufacturing jobs. 

Driving Sustainable Transportation: Public-Private Partnerships for Electric-Transit-Vehicle Development

Less than five years ago, visitors to Chattanooga's downtown and local workers were often forced to drive if they wished to move quickly from point to point in the downtown area. Today they enjoy clean, quiet, convenient, and free electric-bus service, courtesy of the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA). CARTA's growing fleet of locally manufactured electric transit buses will eventually serve riders throughout Chattanooga and neighboring Hamilton County. 

When CARTA developed a plan to get downtown drivers out of their cars and onto public transportation, it made electric buses a vital element of its strategy. In doing so CARTA took a calculated risk, as the electric buses it needed did not yet exist. 

While electric transit vehicles (ETVs) were a technologically viable transportation alternative, the technology was still in its infancy. Other communities were using ETVs, but their models were a poor fit for CARTA's transit service requirements. To treat Chattanooga's downtown ills with a workable ETV system, CARTA either had to wait for ETV technology to catch up to its needs or lead the development of practical, reliable ETVs. It chose to lead.

In September 1991, CARTA created a private not-for-profit corporation, the Electric Transit Vehicle Institute (ETVI), to promote research and development of ETV technology and disseminate findings. Together ETVI and CARTA put Chattanooga's first two electric transit buses into service on a downtown shuttle loop in the summer of 1992. That fall, after a competitive bid process, the authority awarded a contract to a local start-up company, Advanced Vehicle Systems (AVS), for the manufacture and delivery of an additional 12 electric buses.

These organizations, along with the TVA's Electric Vehicle Test Facility, comprise an innovative public private partnership that has advanced ETV technology from troublesome prototypes to a practical and effective public-transit alternative. The ETV development partners accomplished this feat by establishing a process focused on the following objectives:

  • Bringing ETV technology into the public domain.

  • In ETV development efforts elsewhere, private parties had claimed ownership of the technology. To avoid that experience, CARTA and its partners made public access to ETV research a principal goal.
  • Involving those who know transit best in the ETV design process.

  • Owners and operators of transit vehicles have a unique understanding of operating conditions and rider concerns. From the outset CARTA strove to incorporate their perspective into the ETV design process.
  • Testing and improving ETV technology.

  • CARTA recognized that real-world testing of components and systems would quickly advance ETV technology, paving the way to an electric-bus system that would define the state-of-the-art.
  • Developing ETV standards

  • Through research and testing, CARTA strove to establish consensus design and equipment standards for ETVs.
  • Disseminating ETV information.

  • CARTA decided that other transit systems and operators interested in ETVs should benefit from Chattanooga's experience. 
The ETV development partners' work toward these goals is also supported by university researchers, electric utilities, battery suppliers, and others with an interest in building a strong electric-vehicle industry. 

Decongesting Downtown, Refueling Development 

Chattanooga's ETV story starts in the mid-1980s, when city leaders and transit officials first began to seriously address a vexing downtown transportation and land-use problem. 

The city's long, narrow downtown area is divided into three main districts: a south-end shopping district, a central business section, and a north-end riverfront recreation and entertainment district. Moving between these areas required people to drive from point to point. This reliance on automobiles had made Chattanooga's downtown so automobile-intensive that three parking spaces were required for every worker or visitor, and more than 65 percent of the downtown land area was dedicated to cars.

Parking demand, coupled with the fact that surface parking facilities paid markedly lower property taxes than did vacant buildings, led downtown property owners to tear down buildings and construct surface parking lots, reducing city tax revenues and weakening Chattanooga's economy. In the mid-1980s, Chattanooga formulated a downtown redevelopment plan focused on the north-end riverfront. The effort would provide an economic boost to the area, but without a redesigned transportation strategy, the anticipated increase in commercial and recreational traffic would only exacerbate downtown Chattanooga's congestion woes.

In response to both the existing problem and expected future demands, CARTA planned and is now operating a parking garage and shuttle system. The system provides downtown workers and visitors with strategically located parking facilities and free, frequent shuttle service along a loop connecting Chattanooga's three downtown districts.

Although the downtown shuttle system was not conceived with electric buses in mind, its creation was integral to the development of the local ETV industry. The shuttle system provided the initial market for ETVs, spurring local manufacturing. Its daily operation is central to a "Living Laboratory" in which electric vehicles and electric-vehicle systems are tested in real-world operating environments.

CARTA planners approached the initial design of the parking and shuttle system with a primary goal: a financially self-sustaining transportation alternative that would provide an appealing riding experience for downtown workers and visitors. 

Early in the design process, planners identified a group of businesspeople, elected officials, and others the system was likely to impact directly, and solicited these stakeholders' input in a series of planning and assessment meetings. 

The most prominent concerns identified in these meetings were potential disruptions resulting from construction, aesthetics of the system infrastructure, and consistency with the city's forward-looking sustainable development goals. Inclusion of these perspectives clarified project goals and led to consensus. Moreover, community-based planning gave transit officials some license to take a calculated risk on an emerging technology. 

Stakeholder values, especially the desire to look to the future rather than the past, led the planners away from their initial vehicle choice of electric-powered "vintage" trolleys. Fierce competition for federal funding of trolley systems, the negative visual impact of overhead power lines, and uncertainty about future traffic patterns reinforced the decision to pursue ETV alternatives.

Forging a Dynamic Working Partnership

CARTA's primary function is to provide transit services to the city, Hamilton County and other nearby jurisdictions. When these jurisdictions formed CARTA, they did not see a need to carry out research and development, information dissemination, and manufacturing activities. Because these specialized functions were beyond the scope of CARTA's mission, and because they did not exist in other organizations, CARTA fostered the growth of organizations to serve its needs. CARTA sponsored the creation of an institute to fill the R&D role and used an ETV procurement contract to promote manufacturing.

With all the roles filled, the partnership functions as a "Living Laboratory." The laboratory draws on the resources of all partners and brings together designers, engineers, manufacturers, and operators to test drive ideas, diagnose flaws, and make improvements. In addition to facilitating research and testing, the Living Laboratory invites visitors to learn about ETV technology and see it in action.

Close relationships among the partners permit an unusually fluid administrative structure. While ETVI's mission is central to partnership activities, the institute has only three full-time staff. Thus all participants in the ETV partnership share administrative responsibility for Living Laboratory activities, which include setting up demonstrations, arranging the testing of new prototype equipment, and coordinating communication with outside researchers. 

The partnership works because all players share a common goal of promoting ETV use and because their roles complement and reinforce one another. CARTA, for its part, benefits greatly from local sourcing. Buying from AVS assures responsive service (including easy maintenance and repair of buses) and permits CARTA to influence ETV design directly. AVS, in turn, draws on the research and testing of other partners to continuously improve its product, thereby enhancing its competitive position. The interests of the TVA (and other power producers) are also served, as the partnership promotes the use of electricity, displacing fossil-fuel consumption and expanding electric-power markets. Finally, ETVI has access to local public and private resources to further its broader research and outreach goals. ETVI's willingness and ability to serve as a demonstration site for federal R&D efforts attracts federal investment for the local effort. CARTA, the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) fund ETVI activities.

The partnership approach has enabled the ETV development effort to overcome many obstacles. Lack of private capital presents one of the most serious barriers to development and expansion of the electric vehicle industry. It is difficult to achieve economies of scale or move into production of other types of electric vehicles (delivery and fleet vehicles, for example) without major capital infusion, yet private lenders are leery of new technology. Mass production could make ETVs and other electric vehicles significantly less expensive than their traditional fuel counterparts. In this case CARTA's purchase of ETVs motivated AVS's entrepreneurial investors to provide the initial capital. Indeed, AVS's launch involved no capital from commercial lenders. Its start-up was supported by CARTA's commitment to buy electric buses.

Lack of technical expertise and experience in ETV design and production presents another ongoing challenge. CARTA's willingness to accept an evolving, less than-perfect product gave AVS the latitude to operate in a "learn-as-you-go" environment. Free to make design improvements throughout the construction process, AVS was able to adjust its ETV formula and develop a more mature technology.

Lastly, misunderstanding of and lack of knowledge about the state of ETV technology--including vehicle range, safety, and operability--prevents it from being more widely accepted. An explicit goal of the partnership and part of ETVI's mission is the dissemination of up-to-date information on ETV technology. 
A primary means of education is example--putting electric buses on Chattanooga's streets and inviting the world to come see how, and how well, they work. The partners will also take their show on the road to the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. CARTA will furnish two electric buses to serve local transportation needs during the games, demonstrating the functionality of ETVs to a worldwide audience. Atlanta Olympics officials have retained ETVI to manage all transportation in the Olympic Village.

While the partnership helps its members overcome obstacles to ETV development, none of its activities would be possible without dedicated funding. To meet the goal of economic sustainability, the initial capital costs of the garage/shuttle system--for parking-garage construction and electric-bus purchases- were funded entirely through grants. Eighty percent of the funding comes from the FTA; ten percent from the Tennessee Department of Transportation; and ten percent from the city of Chattanooga. By using grant money to lay the foundation of its ETV system, CARTA is able to offer shuttle service at no charge to passengers.

When all infrastructure is in place, the shuttle system's annual operating costs of about $500,000 will be met from parking revenues and lease of retail space built into the parking facilities. With only the smallest of three planned garages completed and open, parking fees already cover 25 percent of operating costs. CARTA expects that the system will be self-supporting when the second garage, now under construction, is complete.

Assessing Performance and Replicating Results

As an open, visitor-friendly demonstration of both the technical and practical viability of electric-bus technology, Chattanooga's ETV program has unfolded new transit options for localities worldwide. Many communities operating electric buses today are doing so, at least in part, because they have seen ETVs in action in Chattanooga's Living Laboratory--and noted their success.

Designed to test and advance ETV design, the Chattanooga partnership has made and applied significant findings based on real-world experience, and continues to do so. To date CARTA has purchased a total of nine electric buses, each featuring more advanced technology than the last. Three years of operating, dismantling, repairing, and reassembling buses have yielded a highly functional, dependable product.

ETV development has brought significant environmental and economic benefits to Chattanooga. Downtown streets boast less congestion and pollution because electric buses have eliminated the need for short, high-emission car trips, and because the buses themselves are zero-emission vehicles. The local economy benefits from more than 30 manufacturing jobs created at AVS and from new business the shuttles attract to the downtown area. Indeed, Chattanooga's garage construction program will include, among other businesses, a new movie theater complex, bucking a national tendency for this type of business to move out of urban centers. 

Local ETV research and development have placed the United States in a position to take global leadership in the production of electric transit vehicles. Communities around the world seek to improve local air quality and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. ETVs, which provide a cost-effective, zero emission vehicle transportation option, are poised to meet urban transit needs while fulfilling these sustainability objectives. Export of ETVs, components, and technological expertise is now a legitimate sustainable growth opportunity for the U.S. economy. 

Chattanooga's experience demonstrates that public-private partnerships can be a powerful tool for the development of such sustainable industries. Specific conditions existed in the city of Chattanooga and surrounding Hamilton County that fostered the formation of a successful partnership. These conditions, however, are not unique to Chattanooga or to ETV development. Other areas can achieve similar successes under similar conditions.

Those involved in Chattanooga's ETV development process have identified two keys to success. First, the technology or concept must have a champion. Someone or some small group in a position of authority must be a committed and enthusiastic advocate. Second, decision-makers must have clear and realistic expectations. All technologies have strengths and weaknesses. Careful assessment of limitations allows planners to tailor systems to work within technological parameters and set achievable goals. CARTA understood early that it was adopting an unrefined technology and planned accordingly. It found an application, downtown shuttle service, in which the existing state of the technology was functional, and it built from that foundation.

Also critical to Chattanooga's success was its ability to capitalize on existing resources of the TVA and to mobilize significant federal money. Further, Chattanooga's climate of innovation supported ETV development. The city is in the process of reinventing itself, so residents and public officials have an appetite for forward-looking ideas. While these factors are not requirements for replicability, they are certainly advantageous.

Chattanooga's ETV Living Laboratory invites other communities to replicate both the public-transit strategies it showcases and the partnerships that have translated those strategies into action. Any visitor can see not only that the technology works, but that its deployment through public-private cooperation is effective. Chattanooga's broadest lesson--that non-traditional approaches to urban problems can and do work--may prove to be its most profound.LOCATION
Astride the Tennessee River at the junction of Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. 

Chattanooga: 124 square miles
Hamilton County: 539 square miles

Chattanooga: 153,431
Hamilton County: 294,214

Chattanooga: $12,332
Hamilton County: $13,619

Chattanooga:Mayor/City Council.
Hamilton County:Commission/County Executive 

Historically, Chattanooga's central location in the Southeast and access to the Tennessee River have made it a vital commercial link between North and South. By the mid-1960s the city had become a major manufacturing center and one of the most polluted cities in the nation. Since that time, Chattanooga has initiated a comprehensive sustainable development plan that weds economic goals to environmental ones, and has drawn national and international recognition for its efforts. 

Chattanooga's electric bus development program and downtown shuttle system together have redefined the state of the art in electric transit, established a new local industry with a national customer base, sparked development, and transformed downtown transportation from economically and environmentally degrading dependence on automobiles to reliance on sustainable, practical, and convenient, electric buses.

Local Economic Activity 

  • AVS, Chattanooga's electric bus manufacturer has sold 29 buses - more than 60 percent of electric transit vehicle sales outside California. Local electric bus manufacture supports 35 jobs.
  • Shuttle system related retail development is projected to reach $12 million generating $800,000 in city and county tax revenue.
Environmental Benefits* 
  • Particulate emissions avoided - 600 lbs. per year
  • CO emissions avoided - 2,900 lbs. per year
  • NOX emissions avoided - 10,800 lbs. per year
  • CO2 emissions avoided - 3.5 million lbs. per year
*Benefits of using electric vs. diesel buses on downtown shuttle routes. NOX and CO2 emissions net out electricity generation emissions assuming 60 percent of electricity used is generated in un-scrubbed coal-fired facilities. Additional, unquantified benefits also accrue from reduced short-trip, high-emission, downtown automobile travel.[These estimates were not necessarily developed by the sponsoring jurisdiction.] 

It's a Fact

According to the Electric Transit Vehicle Institute, 39 communities across the United States are operating a total of 102 electric buses.

Selected Jurisdictions operating electric buses

Atlanta, GA - 3
Berkeley, CA - 8
Birmingham, AL - 3
Charlotte, NC - 4
Chattanooga, TN - 10
Denver, CO - 6
Los Angeles, CA - 5
Santa Barbara, CA - 19
Savannah, GA - 4 

Other Sustainable Programs in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, Tennessee

Re-Vision 2000 Goals and Recommendations
Contains 27 general goals and 120 specific recommendations in five categories ranging from environment to government and economy.

Eco-Industrial Parks
Redevelop business and commercial districts and properties polluted by past usage. New designs focus on clean industries and mixed land use.

Electric-Bus "Living Laboratory"
Designs, tests, manufactures, and operates battery-powered electric buses.

Groundwater Resources Protection Program
Maps groundwater resources and develops local regulations to prevent contamination.

Stormwater Management Program
Offers construction site training, monitoring, and public education.

Wastewater Treatment by Constructed Wetlands
Employs the natural filtration and settling processes in man-made wetlands to convert wastewater pollutants into common basic elements. 

Orange Grove Materials Recovery Facility
Recycles waste from the city's curbside recycling program in a facility that provides vocational opportunity to developmentally disabled people. 

Composting Program
Provides a centralized location for the composting of yard waste. MSW composting technology targets up to two-thirds of the solid waste stream. 

North Chickamauga Creek Project
Identifies, through a computer generated 3-D model of the creek's watershed, existing land and recreational uses, the presence of threatened and endangered species, and significant cultural and historical resources in the watershed. 

Tennessee Riverpark and Chattanooga Area Greenways System
Connects parks, trails, and landmarks in and around Chattanooga in a unified green-spaces system. Plans 20 miles of contiguous greenways.

Tennessee River Gorge Trust
Protects the 25,000-acre Gorge through direct purchase, easement, and lease agreements. Owns 4,000 acres and protects an additional 9,000 through easements and leases. Promotes land stewardship through education.

Downtown Trade Center Expansion
Showcases sustainable building design. Incorporates natural wastewater-treatment, stormwater-runoff reduction and energy-efficiency features.

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