Chattanooga to use $500,000 federal grant to study passenger rail service

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / A CSX Freight rumbles down Whiteside Mountain, west of Chattanooga,  The railroad is the mainline between Chattanooga and Nashville and could see passenger service with help from a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportations Corridor ID Program, a cornerstone in the federal governments effort to boost intercity passenger rail nationwide.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / A CSX Freight rumbles down Whiteside Mountain, west of Chattanooga, The railroad is the mainline between Chattanooga and Nashville and could see passenger service with help from a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportations Corridor ID Program, a cornerstone in the federal governments effort to boost intercity passenger rail nationwide.

Note: This story was updated Dec. 6 to correct the cities involved.

Chattanooga will study the potential of a passenger train corridor between Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Atlanta with the help of a $500,000 federal grant, Mayor Tim Kelly announced Tuesday.

The funds are designated for a study to analyze the scope, cost and engineering requirements needed to establish Amtrak passenger rail service on existing routes between the cities, according to the announcement.

The grant is from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Corridor ID Program, a cornerstone in the federal government's effort to boost intercity passenger rail nationwide.

Chattanooga applied for the grant in March. In a news release, Kelly called the grant a huge step forward for an idea he said he has pushed since his administration began.

"There aren't many places in America whose history is as closely tied to rail travel as Chattanooga's," Kelly said in the statement, "and today's announcement is a promising sign that the railroad will continue to be an important part of our future."

(READ MORE: Why can't I take a train from Chattanooga to Nashville? Lawmakers are talking, but challenges run deep)

Once a major passenger rail hub with connections to Birmingham, Nashville, Knoxville, Atlanta, Cincinnati and beyond, Chattanooga has not had commercial passenger rail for decades. Since the last commercial passenger train left downtown Chattanooga, the area's train advocates have seen plan after plan and study after study fail to deliver.

Drawing a contrast from those past efforts, Kelly's administration has pointed to the scale of federal investment in trains today and the relatively modest nature of its preliminary vision, which, rather than centering on new high-speed rail, emphasizes the use of existing tracks between the cities that are currently only used by freight companies.

Precursors to those private companies once carried ticketed passengers. In the 1970s, Congress relieved them of that obligation and created Amtrak.

The new grant puts Chattanooga into the Corridor ID Program's first step, the city news release said. Awardees will move to hire initial staff and contractor support and seek nonfederal financial resources necessary to support the development of a rail plan.

(READ MORE: Greyhound moves bus stop out of downtown Chattanooga as city eyes site for new homeless shelter)

A state of Tennessee report published this summer recommended the Tennessee Department of Transportation study several proposed rail corridors in the region. The report ranked an envisioned Nashville to Chattanooga to Atlanta line in its top tier of those meriting study.

The time frame for any potential passenger rail restart remains unclear. Kelly has said in the past he will be out of office before Chattanoogans are boarding trains to another city again, but that he wants to push the effort along.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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