A new golden age of transportation could be on the horizon for Chattanooga.
It’s a vision of light rail that extends from downtown Chattanooga to Cleveland. It’s a vision with a transportation center as the hub, located on the train tracks and bike paths criscrossing the city alongside existing roads. New bus routes will be in place, with some possibly stretching as far as Fort Oglethorpe and Soddy-Daisy.
“A true multimodal system is a great vision,” said Melissa Taylor, director of strategic long range planning for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency.
This is a good thing for Chattanooga and the region. Why? Because people want it.
In the 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan, conducted by the Chattanooga Area Transit Authority, almost 35 percent of respondents said more biking and walking options need to exist in the area and 31 percent said bus routes need expanding. This is in contrast to 23 percent of respondents who said, “widen roads”.
And CARTA, along with the city of Chattanooga, is delivering with the 2040 study.
All aboard for light rail
“This is the first [study] I’ve seen with so much transit,” said Lisa Maragnano, CARTA’s executive director.
One of the first keys is a study on running light rail to Volkswagen. The city recently approved a study going forward with light rail. It’s a plan that could cost upward of $35 million. But Maragnano thinks it can be done.
“I think you’ll see that moving quickly,” she said. “It’s not that far out.”
Rail lines already exist that can be utilized, she said. The idea is to use these tracks to go from downtown to the airport and then to Enterprise South. Documents show the rail in the future could even go as far as Cleveland.
All officials are waiting for is a decision from a federal agency that would allocate $400,000 for a $700,000 study designed to help implement the light rail plan.
The 2040 plan identifies Enterprise South as a major factor because of the more than 10,000 employees who work there. It also lists Wacker in Cleveland as important when looking at the region’s transportation network.
More sidewalks, more bike paths, more busses
But consideration of future transportation does not end there. Hanging on the walls of CARTA is a series of maps that show transportation planning in the future, and these maps show gaps in public transit and pedestrian walkways. For example, sidewalk gaps exist in Fort Oglethorpe, St. Elmo, Westside, Red Bank, Hixson and North Chattanooga.
The 2040 long-range plan boosts the funding for pedestrian and bicycle use and cuts the amount of funds for building roads. New road construction received a whopping 21 percent decrease, going from 51 percent of transportation funding to 30 percent.
Alternate transportation funding went up from 21 percent of the overall funding to to 28 percent of the Chattanooga Regional Transportation Authority’s funding, the agency set aside to control most of the transportation needs within the area.
Blythe Bailey, the city’s transportation director, said Chattanooga is about to start its own sidewalk gap analysis, “There are a lot of places where the sidewalk ends,” he said.
While the TPO study shows a general overview of the gaps in walking areas in the region, the city study will be able to drill down into the details. But it’s not a magic bullet, Bailey warned. It does not mean there will suddenly be a sidewalk built upon completion of the study. Drive Chattanooga streets and the problems become immediately apparent. Roads built years ago in once-rural areas have drainage ditches on both sides. Many areas across the city would be costly to retrofit, and it will take time.
“We’re not saying we’re going to change every mile of road in the city,” Bailey said. “But when we do change a road this will be implemented.”
For years, the way at looking at transportation was roads first and everything else second. Now, under the new ordinance, all things are equal, and when planning maintenance on roads or building new roads, walkways and bike lanes will automatically be part of those plans. Recent examples include Shallowford and Hamill roads where sidewalks were placed with the existing roads.
The 2040 plan also addresses an expansion in bussing by listing a new route that would run from Hamilton Place Mall to Soddy-Daisy. But the estimated cost of the route (priced with 2040 inflation in mind), at almost $250,000,000 may be too much for some to stomach.
Maragno noted one thing that will certainly change are the city’s fixed bus routes. CARTA is conducting studies on the routes right now, looking at what routes are most used and what are least, she said. Once the transportation center is in place, there will be some tweaking and major overhauls to existing bus routes to help meet riders’ needs better, she said.
The city is moving full steam ahead on its bike options as well. A couple of years ago, Bike Chattanooga was created, and now tourists and residents can rent through the bikeshare program in numerous stalls across downtown Chattanooga.
Bike Chattanooga officials have said they plan to keep expanding the program. The idea is to try and provide more and more rentals available on the Tennessee Riverwalk. One day, these bicycles could cover the city from Enterprise South to downtown to Brainerd.
These are all options on the table. Further study and funding will have to come later. “I think this plan has a lot more projects in it that will not be implemented over a short period of time,” Taylor said.
Yet the vision is there as Chattanooga looks toward a new transportation model. Every day, more and more cars pile up on the ridge cut on Interstate 24. As the city grows, so does its traffic. Finally, a plan exists that focuses more on thinking outside the box than on just building more roads for more cars.
But it will be up to everyone to use the sidewalks, bike lanes and busses—and not just drive by them.
Hub that links it all
The center of it all will be a new transportation hub or multimodal center, said Maragno.
CARTA, along with several partners, is in the preliminary stages of creating a new multimodal center that would focus all of the city and area’s transportation needs into one-stop shopping. It will be part bus stop, part train station, and all inclusive for transportation.
Similar centers already exist throughout the U.S. and in Knoxville and Memphis.
Maragno said the hope would be to locate it along the light rail extending from from downtown to Enterprise South. But how Chattanooga’s particular center would look is yet to be determined.
“Is it going to be one large one?” she asked. “Two small ones? We don’t know.”
One thing is certain: Major changes in Chattanooga’s transportation system are coming, and for many in the city, they cannot get here too soon.