Because of companies like Amazon and Volkswagen coming into Chattanooga, area roads and railways are seeing an increase in traffic as goods and materials are transported to and from those businesses.
As a result, some residents of areas with high volumes of train traffic, such as Hixson, complain of trains blocking roadways that have caused delays as long as several hours.
"We're suffering a little bit from the blessings of our own prosperity," said state Rep. Robin Smith, who represents the Hixson area.
She invited stakeholders to discuss the issue at a public meeting which drew around 100 citizens last week. Also in attendance were representatives from the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the cities of Chattanooga and Soddy-Daisy, the Hamilton County Commission, Hamilton County Rail Authority, the state House Transportation Committee, and Norfolk Southern Railway.
Changes such as the switch from fixed warehouses to just-in-time inventory management, in which goods are ordered only as needed, means more trucks on the road and trains on the tracks than the previous system, said Smith.
One crossing where blockages have been an issue is just off the Highway 27/Thrasher Pike exit. Sometimes, cars get backed up onto 27, she said.
A crossing on Hamill Road near Memorial North Park Hospital in Hixson is of particular concern due to serious delays it's caused for emergency vehicles, according to a 2006 report by the Federal Railroad Administration. The fire station and hospital are located to the west of the crossing, and around 5,000 residents live to the east.
The Hamill Road blockages, which frequently stop drivers for 30-55 minutes at a time, are the result of northbound trains slowing to allow southbound trains to pass the interlocking where the line converges into a single track, the report states. Southbound trains also slow at the intersection to drop off crews or switch activities at Norfolk Southern's nearby rail yard just across the Tennessee River.
When those trains cross one after another, as is often the case, traffic backs up for a quarter-mile onto Highway 153, a major artery and an evacuation route for the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant.
In 2009, at the request of the city of Chattanooga, TDOT conducted a study that looked at the possibility of putting a roadway bridge over the intersection. No action was taken due to environmental concerns and community opposition, as that project would have displaced four families and nine businesses, according to Steve Allen, director of TDOT's Strategic Transportation Investments Division who performed the study.
The study estimated the cost of the bridge construction at $12.3 million. Today, the same project is estimated at $20 million to $25 million, including required permits and studies.
State Rep. Dan Howell, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said Gov. Bill Lee is open to identifying revenue streams that could be dedicated to a railroad infrastructure fund. Cities and counties could then apply to receive some of those earmarked funds to fix problems with their local railroad crossings.
"Ultimately, we need to have buy-in from local community governments," he stressed, as the city of Chattanooga would need to be the lead entity to trigger the funding process to fix the Hamill Road intersection. In the case of the Thrasher Pike intersection, Hamilton County would need to be the lead entity.
TDOT does not have control over city and county roads, he said, and on state and federal highways, TDOT cannot do any work within 200 feet of a railroad crossing without permission from the railroad.
The cost of an overpass would need to be split between the local municipality — which would be required to pay a minimum of 10% — and the state and federal governments, which could pursue a variety of grants once the process is initiated by the local government responsible for the road. Norfolk Southern can be required to match 5% of the construction cost related to the overpass, according to a review of the Hamill crossing performed in March at Smith's request.
Tim Andrews, director of the Hamilton County Rail Authority, said that even if funding for the overpass is secured tomorrow, it would take five years to build.
Short-term solutions discussed include securing grant funding for an "interconnect signaling system" to notify the 911 Dispatch Center of trains approaching or blocking the intersection. However, that information would only be provided to emergency responders for the routing of emergency vehicles, not to the general public.
The railroads provide some grant funding for interconnect signaling, but the grant process would need to be initiated by the city or county, depending on who controls the road. TDOT would also need to be involved, said Smith.
"Unless it's changed since the last time I talked to the representatives from the railroad, we've not had one city or county statewide apply for those grants," said Howell. "So I would urge those city officials, county officials to talk to the local representatives and see if there's a chance to get some of those funds."
A grassroots community effort, in the form of citizens talking or writing letters to their local government representatives and officials, is necessary to start the process, and a team effort between the various entities is required for action to be taken, added Smith.
In the meantime, drivers who have an emergency while stopped by a train at a Norfolk Southern railroad crossing may contact the company's police force by calling 1-800-946-4744. The number is also posted at all Norfolk Southern crossings, said Norfolk representative Elizabeth Lawlor.
Email Emily Crisman at email@example.com.