City lays out plans for the future of light rail in the region—and beyond
Around 150 citizens came out to the Chattanooga Choo Choo this past Thursday night. It was obviously more than organizers expected, because there weren’t enough chairs. But no one seemed to mind. They were there to learn what had come of the ideas they shared last October in this same room, ideas about the future of passenger rail in Chattanooga.
The City of Chattanooga presented three options, or alternatives, to discuss concerning bringing light rail service back to the Scenic City. Around the turn of the last century, Chattanooga was known as being a rail hub for interstate commerce as well as passenger rail service. And there were also plenty of streetcar lines connecting downtown to what were then the outlying areas of St. Elmo, Lookout Mountain, Signal Mountain and East Lake.
Personal motorcars all but killed off all the passenger rail service in town except the Incline that goes from St. Elmo to Point Park a mile or so away and almost straight up. Road crews paved over streetcar rails to make extra lanes for automobiles, sweeping away one of the things that made Chattanooga unique by “progress.”
Now there is a move afoot to return to the days of catching a streetcar from the suburbs to downtown or a light rail train from downtown to Enterprise Park. Utilizing a federal grant, the city has been researching the options available and determining the feasibility of each. The results of the study, along with public input from last October has now been narrowed down to three options.
“The alternatives are built on three basic strategies,” explains Chattanooga Department of Transportation’s Blythe Bailey. “The premise of the grant was to maximize utilization of our existing infrastructure. That’s one strategy.” This would involve using an abandoned rail line from the Choo Choo out to a proposed “Park & Ride” location to be built near the Hwy 153 / Bonny Oaks area.
“It was also a very essential part of the grant to make sure that you build a great community around a great transportation system,” says Bailey. To that end, Alternative 2 is centered around economic development. This one includes a streetcar system that serves UTC, Erlanger Medical Center, and the downtown businesses, while connecting to a light rail system that goes out to the Park & Ride and extends out to the Enterprise South Industrial Park.
The third alternative involves mobility with the main goal being to reduce congestion and traffic on the roadways. A robust streetcar network downtown would connect with the light rail to the Park & Ride and also to a commuter bus line that would also service the airport and Enterprise South.
According to polls taken since the October meeting, Alternative 1 (Maximum Infrastructure Reuse) seems to pique more interest scoring high on support, proper placement of stations, and potential rider volume.
Yet Bailey points out that it’s not fair to strictly separate these options. “They all have elements of each other. That means that just because something is in one alternative doesn’t mean it’s not present in another.”
He concedes that the first option would be the least expensive initially and would be quickest to implement, but also emphasizes the fact that decisions made now could affect life in the Scenic City for many decades to come.
The city is very keen to get as much input on this project as possible. If you’d like to know more, visit their website at chattanooga.gov/rail or text “rail” to 97779.