NASHVILLE — A new state report recommends the Tennessee Department of Transportation study the feasibility of establishing the proposed passenger rail corridor from Nashville to Chattanooga to Atlanta, ranking the project No. 1 among five potential intercity corridors, another of which also involves Chattanooga.
The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations approved the finding during its meeting in late June. It recognizes Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly's ongoing partnership with officials in Atlanta, Nashville and Memphis, which earlier this year joined with Chattanooga to apply for funding under a federal program to study the corridor.
Calling the inclusion of Chattanooga "very exciting," the commission's vice chair, Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks, said Monday in a Chattanooga Times Free Press phone interview that the Nashville, Chattanooga and Atlanta recommendation was the lone "Tier 1" recommendation in the draft.
"It really addresses the traffic problems," said Brooks, a former state legislator, going on to describe recent instances in which he has been mired in traffic along Interstate 24 in Chattanooga, Murfreesboro and into Nashville while en route to the capital on business.
The commission's executive director, Cliff Lippard, said the recommendation formalizes the agency's position on the project and for a TDOT study. Efforts to reach TDOT officials Monday were unsuccessful.
Chattanooga also factors into Tier 2 recommendations involving passenger train links between the city with Knoxville and Bristol.
Officials at Amtrak, the national passenger railroad company of the United States, began talking up additional passenger lines across Tennessee and other parts of the U.S. in early 2020. Memphis is the only Tennessee city with Amtrak services, linking the city with New Orleans and Chicago.
"The TACIR study regarding passenger rail routes through Chattanooga recognizes the need to find alternative transportation options for Tennesseeans and those traveling through our state," Tennessee House Finance Committee Chair Patsy Hazlewood, who serves on the intergovernmental commission, said in a text.
"As Tennessee continues to grow, and as we continue to be a top tourist destination, traffic issues are going to grow as well," she said. "If and when federal dollars become available for new rail lines to accommodate passenger service, we need to be prepared for Tennessee to be a part of the planning and implementation. While it will be a long-term fix, increasing public transportation options is a critical piece of the solution for our growing congestion problem. It's an early step on a very long road."
Kelly's administration has previously pointed to the scale of federal investment in trains today and the relatively modest nature of its preliminary vision, which emphasizes the use of existing tracks between the cities owned and used by freight companies.
Cohen on board
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, questioned Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner on the status of the Memphis-to-Nashville passenger route during a June hearing in the House's Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. The hearing was titled "Amtrak Operations: Examining the Challenges and Opportunities for Improving Efficiency and Service."
"I know that the state has submitted a corridor identification application to the Federal Railroad Administration for service from Memphis east to Nashville on to Chattanooga and Atlanta," Gardner said. "That's a very interesting corridor, one that holds a lot of promise. And the process now will be for the FRA to consider those applications for the corridor development program and to make their selections."
That would provide some "initial seed funding" to be able to begin the planning work, Gardner said, calling it a "great step and one that we've supported."
Asked by Cohen whether the state could be doing more or if the state is doing what is necessary, Gardner said the "first critical step" is to get in the program, make a submission and to express an interest. Once FRA makes its decisions, there will be a process to further study and work with host railroads and operators like Amtrak and plan out further services.
"But this was a critical step that was necessary by the state," Gardner said.
Cohen said the corridor could prove "very important," given that Ford Motor Co. is opening a major truck-production plant in rural West Tennessee. It's 40 to 50 miles from Memphis and having rail to get workers to the plant and further into Nashville is important.
Chattanooga historically was a major southern rail hub as well as a prime entry point into Georgia. That made the then-town worth fighting for by Federal and Confederate troops during the Civil War.
Decades later Glenn Miller and his orchestra immortalized both the city and its railroad ties in his famous 1941 song, "Chattanooga Choo Choo."
The city once had two passenger train stations. One was the Terminal Station operated by Southern Railway, which today is the Chattanooga Choo Choo, a tourist and entertainment destination with hotel rooms. The other was the Union Depot, which belonged to L&N. It was torn down amid controversy in the early 1970s.
Steve Freer, operations supervisor with the Tennessee Railway Museum in Chattanooga, told the Times Free Press during a 2020 interview that passenger service ended at L&N's Union Station in 1971. Southern had already closed its Terminal Station.
Benefits of rail
In its report, the intergovernmental commission said that based on the experiences of other states and analysis conducted by the Southeast Corridor Commission and the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, intercity passenger rail service could help increase connectivity and facilitate tourism and other economic development initiatives in Tennessee, thus supplementing existing public‐ and private‐sector efforts to address Tennessee's transportation needs.
"But," the report notes, "the state would almost certainly have to subsidize any new passenger rail service through capital investment and ongoing operating cost support. The cost to taxpayers of establishing and operating service on any given rail corridor cannot be known without more detailed engineering and technical analysis than commission staff can provide."
The commission notes federal funding is available for studies through the Federal Railroad Administration's Corridor ID program, which includes $500,000 grants that can be used for detailed route studies or other purposes.
Lippard said by phone Monday that it was important to the commission that the routes identified in the report had the potential to expand beyond Tennessee.
"It's more viable if it connects to other routes in other large markets," Lippard said. "And Chattanooga, because of where it is, has the potential of connecting to that Atlanta market, which connects to the Eastern Corridor."
The recommended study would:
— Identify the alignment, condition and ownership of tracks.
— Define an integrated network for intercity rail travel.
— Provide alternatives for intermodal connections between the affected airports and passenger rail services.
— Survey projects initiated over the past 10 years involving the initiation of new state-sponsored Amtrak intercity passenger rail.
The commission notes other states, including North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania, in recent years have successfully initiated new intercity passenger rail services. Through interviews with stakeholders, commission staff identified key factors contributing to the successes of intercity passenger rail:
— A solid commitment to funding from the state.
— Positive working relationships with freight rail companies.
— Strong support at the local level.
— A dedicated state rail office to manage project development.
PASSENGER RAIL PROJECT RECOMMENDATIONS FOR STUDY
The list of passenger rail project recommendations for TDOT study made by TACIR are:
— Nashville to Chattanooga to Atlanta.
— Memphis to Nashville.
— Chattanooga to Knoxville to Bristol. Amtrak is already seeking to extend its existing service to Bristol, Virginia, which is across the border from Bristol, Tennessee.
— Memphis to Carbondale, Illinois, to Chicago.
— Nashville to Louisville, Kentucky.