There's a problem at Enterprise South, but it's a good problem: There's so much freight hauling going on that the park's county-owned rail network needs to grow to handle it all.
Hamilton County commissioners will vote this week to apply for a pair of federal grants for a $15.4 million project to expand and improve the rails and reduce congestion. The county will have to come up with an $8.8 million match.
Tim Andrews, chairman of the Hamilton County Railroad Authority, and Dan Saieed, the county's director of development, pitched the idea at the commission's agenda session Wednesday.
Andrews compared congestion on the park's rail network to the clogged condition of Bonny Oaks Drive, which carries a large share of the workers at Volkswagen, Amazon and the park's other occupants.
Just like on the highway, he said, backed-up rails slow things down and cost industries money and time.
Local leaders for decades had a vision of bringing an automobile manufacturing plant to the site of the former Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant at Tyner. By the time Volkswagen decided to land there in 2008, Andrews said, the county had already spent nearly a decade upgrading the rail network at the former U.S. Army site.
"Using the best information we had at the time, we sized the track capacity for what we believed would be the foreseeable production," he said.
That was before Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) brought its transloading facility for sweetener; before a cluster of suppliers and other manufacturers flocked to the site; before VW's $900 million expansion or the addition of a second production line for the Atlas SUV.
"What we're looking at now is a sustained higher level, probably two or three times as high as what we designed the capacity for," Andrews said in an interview with the Times Free Press. Both Norfolk-Southern and CSX serve Enterprise South.
ADM spokeswoman Jackie Anderson said in a statement Friday that "easy access to safe, efficient rail traffic is critical to the continued success of our business in Chattanooga."
"We are supportive of efforts to improve the infrastructure near our sweetener facility in Enterprise South to help avoid delays and ensure the rail service can accommodate future growth in the area," Anderson said.
VW spokesman Keith King said the automaker also supports efficient rail capacity at the industrial park.
Andrews said the authority planned all along for possible expansion.
"We didn't know when it would happen, but we had every reason to believe it would happen," he said.
For instance, a rebuilt bridge was constructed to go over three tracks instead of just one. Now all they have to do is build the tracks.
Over the next two or three years, if the grants come through, the authority will add more rail and longer tracks designed to better separate traffic between the park's various tenants.
One grant is under the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements [CRISI] program of the Federal Railroad Administration. That would go to help "untangle" a junction carrying traffic to ADM and VW, Andrews said.
The other is from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development [BUILD] program. It's part of President Donald Trump's initiative to leverage federal money with private resources for infrastructure improvements, Andrews said.
That's the one that carries most of the $8.8 million match.
"They really like at least a 50 percent match or more. They're really looking for partnerships," he said.
In the county's case, those could be the state or corporate partners. Andrews wouldn't say if the county might try to tap park tenants for a share of the cost.
Saieed said once the grant application is submitted, the county will go looking for partners. He also said state and federal elected officials have promised support.
"We've always found Sen. [Bob] Corker, Rep. [Chuck] Fleischmann and Sen. [Lamar] Alexander's offices very supportive," Saieed said.
Andrews added that the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the Southeast Tennessee Development District also have been solid partners in past ventures.
The Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce is helping out, too, said Sybil Topel, vice president of marketing and communications.
At Wednesday's agenda session, Commissioner Warren Mackey called the congestion a good sign for Hamilton County.
"I'm glad our railroads are busy; I'm glad our roads are busy," Mackey said. "Without them, we're not doing business."
Commissioner Tim Boyd asked what would happen if none of the partners came through with matching money.
"The worse-case scenario" is that the county would have to put up all $8.8 million, he pointed out.
Andrews told the Times Free Press the project also could be scaled back and completed over time as money becomes available.
Commissioner Greg Martin wondered if backed-up rail lines at Enterprise South could be partly responsible for sometimes-lengthy delays at the Hamill Road crossing just off Highway 153 in Hixson.
His constituents tell him trains sit on the tracks for as long as 30 minutes, cutting off access to CHI Memorial Hospital, Martin said.
That's possible, Andrews said. The same problem happens on Jersey Pike, he added. What really needs to happen on both streets is a grade-separation project so trains and cars don't occupy the same space.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at email@example.com or 423-57-6416.