published Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

City Council: Chattanooga light rail study must be convincing

Chattanooga officials say they’ll look into the idea of bringing back the city’s Choo Choo but they’ll make no promises.

The City Council voted 8-1 Tuesday night to allow transportation officials to apply for a $400,000 federal grant to explore the idea of bringing a passenger rail service back to the Scenic City.

But if the city expects several council members to approve the project — which transportation officials estimate could cost $35 million — the study will need to show how the light rail would relieve congestion and impact economic and community growth.

“I’m concerned about the price tag being so expensive we wouldn’t be able to fund it,” said Council Chairman Chip Henderson, who voted against the study. “If [the study] comes back and says it’s going to reduce congestion, it’s going to provide an economic catalyst and it’s going to be insanely affordable — than yeah.”

Transportation Director Blythe Bailey offered a list of reasons why the council should support the idea of a light rail service. It will encourage residents to use public transportation, offer a more efficient means of transportation, decrease delays, offer a greener option and spur economic growth, he said.

“Lastly, it’s the intangible. This is the home of the Chattanooga Choo Choo,” Bailey told the council. “We felt like Chattanooga is a place one should be able to ride a train for transportation.”

Before approving the study — which the city will have to match $300,000 — officials also wanted to know logistics such as who would operate the train, how many passengers are expected to use it and would it hurt the city’s taxi industry.

But Bailey said those questions would be answered through the study, along with a cost analyst that could reveal further federal or state grants to offset the cost.

Other officials praised the idea of this midsize city taking a bold step into the future.

“We need to get ahead of the curve,” said Councilwoman Carol Berz.

The rail service could largely use existing rail lines which run to the downtown Chattanooga Choo Choo site, to the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport and to Enterprise South, Bailey said. Lines are currently in place along Holtzclaw, which could help connect Bushtown, Avondale, Orchard Knob and other neighborhoods to both downtown and to job sites like the Volkswagen plant or Amazon plant.

Along the rail line, the proposal also includes adding multiple transit-oriented developments, which are a mix-use residential and commercial development near a transit station or stop.

The estimated cost for an entire light rail is less than the cost to replace a long needed update of the Wilcox Tunnel. City Council also gave transportation officials the green light to apply for a federal grant for $27 million, which would require a local match of $25 million.

The city has applied for a similar grant at least twice before to fix the two-lane tunnel with leakage and ventilation issues. But Bailey said the city has taken steps to get the tunnel prepared for a project, which could increase the city’s chances this year of being picked.

Both federal grants are to the same federal program, but officials said there is no indication that one request would cannibalize the other. Officials should know by midsummer if they’ve received the grants.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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