By Amye Anderson
UCBJ Managing Editor
COOKEVILLE – From providing a handful of daily trips in its early days to providing more than 900 trips per day last year, the Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency’s transit program has come a long way since it first began offering transportation services nearly 40 years ago.
Now, a long-planned project that would allow the organization’s transit program to grow and meet future needs is closer to becoming a reality thanks, in part, to a $3 million grant from the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
That project? A new 30,000-square-foot administrative facility and transit hub for the agency.
“When we first located on (580 S.) Jefferson (Ave.), we explored opportunities at that time to purchase a transit facility or a piece of property to put a transit facility on,” said Rebecca Harris, UCHRA’s Transportation and Services Director.
Those plans were soon shelved as the real estate market and economy tumbled in the late 2000s. Now, with grant assistance available, the agency is preparing for its first ever construction project, Harris says.
UCHRA was just one of several recipients of available transit project grant funds. Approximately $13 million was available to assist organizations with a variety of projects including transit center construction, bus and van purchases, transit vehicle maintenance, and bus shelters.
“We were awarded one of those grants for a transit hub and administrative offices here in the Upper Cumberland,” Harris said. “There is a $3 million grant and a $4 million project. It’s a 25 percent match. So, for every dollar spent, we pay a quarter. Our plan is to cover the entire project in that $4 million at a 75/25 match.”
The agency’s current offices along S. Jefferson Avenue are leased spaces, she says. The property for the proposed project has already been purchased. Located at 5698 S. Jefferson Ave., is still within Cookeville and is situated along Highway 111 allowing better access to nearby major highways and Interstate 40.
“It just seemed like a good location for us to locate,” Harris said. “We needed to locate our transit operation somewhere close to or (that has) easy access to the rural areas of Putnam County and the Upper Cumberland. This location puts us there, right on (Highway) 111. We can access I-40 quickly (and) we can access the rural areas easier.”
“We are looking to move all of our operations,” she added. “This is something that would be over time.”
First, the transportation hub and the transportation administrative team would move to the new facility, followed by the rest of the offices, Harris says. She estimates this grant will allow the for the reinvestment of approximately $438,566 back into additional services annually once construction is complete and all of the offices are located in the new facility.
“That would allow us to be able to reinvest dollars into services that we are currently paying as a lease,” Harris said. “It’s just a smart business decision for the future growth of services to the people in the Upper Cumberland.”
The agency’s transit services, once primarily used by elderly citizens, are also increasing in popularity among the local college population; especially among those students who are from out of the state or country. Travelers use the service to make it to medical appointments, shopping destinations, and business meetings as well.
UCHRA provides public transportation and other services to rural residents of all ages throughout the 14 county Upper Cumberland Region. According the agency’s website, the public transportation services are funded by the Federal Transit Administration, TDOT, local human service contracts, fares, local revenues, and in-kind contributions.
Last year, the agency’s transit drivers drove more than 2.6 million miles.
“The demand is there,” Harris said. “In Cookeville alone last year we experienced over a 100 percent increase. We’re looking at ways to put more services on the street; which is more vehicles (and) more drivers and more hours of operation.
“We’re currently operating under our budget at the maximum amount that we can,” Harris added. “So, you have to look for ways to be able to do more with less.”
The agency has three years to utilize the grant funds and complete the project. Harris estimates the project will break ground this spring and be complete in approximately two years.
“In no way would this have been possible without the support of our county and city mayors and our legislators,” Harris said. “They are to be thanked and commended for their support of this project because it means a lot to what we’re going to be able to do going forward.”