Chattanooga rail backers want to get on track with new passenger line

Chattanooga rail backers want to get on track with new passenger line

July 29th, 2014 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Ron Harr

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Proposed light rail line route from downtown Chattanooga to Enterprise South.

Photo by Laura McNutt/Times Free Press.

Jim Olson first visited Chattanooga in 1993 to ride on the historic steam locomotive at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (TVRRM).

He and his wife fell in love with the town so much that when an engineering job came open at the Tennessee Valley Authority two years later, Olson moved from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Chattanooga and has never left.

"There are people all over the world who want to ride on a train and, like me, many of them will come here and maybe even stay here if we had more train service," Olson said.

Local train enthusiasts hope to tap into that market from both tourists and local commuters with a new light-rail passenger train route proposed to be added from the TVRRM to downtown and out to Enterprise South.

Ron Harr, the president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce who first rode a train to Chattanooga when he was only 14, said the Scenic City is in a unique position to capitalize on the renewed interest in light rail transport. In a luncheon speech to the Chattanooga Engineers Club Monday, Harr dubbed the new route "Choo Choo 2.0" and insisted the city has both the name recognition and rail infrastructure for success without having to spend as much as most cities would for a light rail system.

"Because of that magical song in 1943 (Chattanooga Choo Choo), we have a railroad brand already," Harr said. "We also are unique in that a lot of our rail infrastructure hasn't been as dismantled as it has in other cities."

Harr stressed that any passenger rail service must be designed not to hamper the important freight rail service provided in Chattanooga by CSX and Norfolk Southern.

"We don't want our freight rail friends to be worried at all because what we're doing will totally stay out of their hair," he said.

The city of Chattanooga applied this spring for a $400,000 grant from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER Discretionary Grant program from the federal Department of Transportation. The federal grant would match $300,000 from the city to study passenger demand, routes and fares for a passenger train route through parts of Chattanooga.

The grant request is among $9.5 billion of such requests submitted this year and few, if any, are likely to be funded until Congress approves a transportation package to replenish the depleted highway trust fund.

But Harr and others insist the planning grant is a small step toward what could develop into a major transportation asset for Chattanooga. Harr said a $40 million upgrade of rail lines and passenger equipment could add rail service from downtown to East Chattanooga and to Enterprise South, where VW and Amazon are growing and crowding existing roads with cars.

Lisa Maragnano, executive director at Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA), said a new rail line could complement the city's bus line and offer new transportation alternatives outside of the driving passenger cars.

"We have so much infrastructure here already, it would be silly not to look at what we have and see what we can use to provide better transportation and choices for commuters and businesses," she said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.