Chattanooga considering light rail from downtown to airport and Enterprise South

Chattanooga considering light rail from downtown to airport and Enterprise South

April 22nd, 2014 by Kevin Hardy in Business Around the Region

POLL: Does Chattanooga need a light rail system?

Blythe Bailey

Photo by Patrick Smith/Times Free Press.

Move over Choo Choo, Chattanooga could soon have a new railroad - and this one won't just be the stuff of legends and Big Band music.

Chattanooga leaders are hoping to bring passenger rail service back to the Scenic City, which immortalized its legacy as a rail hub with the 1941 song by Glenn Miller. Now more than 40 years after the last passenger train pulled out of the city, leaders are forming plans for a new light rail service to connect downtown to the airport and to job sites like Enterprise South.

The plan is still in its infancy, but City Transportation Director Blythe Bailey said 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. 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 Volkwagen plant or Amazon plant.

"It's really a matter of connecting the dots," Bailey said. "A lot of the infrastructure, because of our history, is already there."

For at least 15 years, local leaders have explored rail service between Chattanooga and Atlanta. But tonight the city council will vote to apply for a $400,000 federal grant to start exploring local rail service. The grant requires a local $300,000 match.

The light rail effort is separate from the regional bid for a multi-billion dollar high-speed rail running between Chattanooga and Atlanta. The fate of that project is still unknown as it awaits approval from the federal government. So far, more than $7.9 million has been spent and another $16.3 million has been pledged from local, state and federal dollars to study the high-speed rail.

The city's push to create a rail line connecting neighborhoods could ultimately up its chances for the larger regional effort, said Ron Harr, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

But more importantly, boosters see the light rail as a boon to local businesses. It will spur business along the stops, but also connect various neighborhoods to jobs, Harr said. And it will be a draw for tourists looking to travel from the airport to downtown or just looking to experience some of the city's rail history. Harr said the project could connect often forgotten neighborhoods and could help expand the reach of the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum.

"The great thing about this proposal is it blends those two things," Harr said. "And I don't know any place in the country that does that."

But whether Chattanooga needs or can maintain such an ambitious project remains to be seen.

City Council member Yusuf Hakeem said he'll support tonight's vote to ask for planning money. But he's not convinced there's a local need for light rail. He said the city should look to CARTA and private taxi services before making such a costly leap to rail.

Hakeem butt heads with city hall officials last month when he tried to pitch a citywide voucher program with Millennium Taxi Cab. On Monday, he said light rail could be unfair government competition for local taxi businesses.

"The concept of putting local business out of business gives me concern," he said. "[Light rail] is a neat idea, but at the same time, are we addressing our basic needs right now?"

The Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport has been shut off from public transportation for years. And CARTA is just now opening a bus stop at the terminal after airport customers asked for the option. The stop is already installed across from the ticketing area and should be open by the first week of May, said airport president Terry Hart.

He said a light-rail system from downtown to the airport is a great idea, especially if transportation planners can figure out how to feed that system with other modes of transportation.

"That's a key thing as the city grows," he said. "How can we use those different modes? I'd like to see different ways to get in and [out of the airport]. Some people may not like busses, so are there other ways to do it? We'll explore all of them."

Staff writer Shelly Bradbury contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.