Light Rail: A Weekend Visit to a Popular Phantasm

Our recent issue about What Knoxville Needs stirred up an old futuristic dream that won’t die. We talk about it today in the same tones we used in the ’60s when we talked about jet packs and hovercraft and computers.

A few weeks ago, a family wedding brought me to Charlotte, N.C., our sister city 230 miles to the east. We had plenty to keep us busy that weekend, but I let my family know that I couldn’t leave town until I’d taken a ride on the light rail.

I’d heard something about it, several years ago: that it seemed quaint but pointless. I pictured it as something fun for the kids, sort of a Toonerville Trolley for the big city. It has expanded since then. When I gave it a spin, I was pretty well awed.

Five years old now, Charlotte’s line is called the Lynx. Its cars run along just one line, from downtown to suburban areas south of the city, close to 10 miles in all.

It runs sometimes on the ground, sometimes on elevated tracks, but it operates just like a subway. If you’re encumbered with an automobile, as I was, you park it for free, and buy your ticket before you board, two bucks, from a machine. Then you wait on a siding—it’s never long, about 15 minutes—and the train whooshes up and stops, opens its doors, you get on quickly and go.

I was expecting something like the St. Charles Avenue streetcar. The Lynx reminded me much more of the Washington Metro. It’s better than a subway, though, because you can see the scenery on the way. From the Lynx you can see that Charlotte’s not the stark, modern city you see across the Interstate 85 guardrails, the concrete-and-glass-and-asphalt mirage of a city that grew too fast. From the Lynx, Charlotte shows off some of its interesting old industrial neighborhoods, some of which resemble Knoxville’s.

It stops at each of 15 stations, several with names that sing: Tyvola, Scaleybark. “Bland Street” doesn’t live up to its name, offering one of the more interesting views. There and at several stops on the Lynx, downtown-style restaurants and shops are popping up. A light-rail stop seems to be good for preservation, and also for new construction. Last month the Charlotte Observer remarked on the apartment-building boom that Lynx had spawned. Reportedly 60 percent of new apartments in Charlotte are within a 15-minute walk of a Lynx stop.

I took just two trips, on a Saturday, but both times the cars were almost packed. A few were sightseers, like me, but most seemed practical commuters or shoppers, reading the paper or texting while they rode.

That day, at least, the Lynx operated on the honor system. There are no turnstiles, and I could have ridden for free. I hear that on rare occasions they do check, and it’s a $50 fine if you’re caught aboard without a ticket. But the whole time I rode, on a Saturday, I never saw a live attendant or staffer of any sort. Maybe they’re undercover.

It was, overall, an agreeable way to spend an afternoon and, I would think, a great way to get to work.

When I talk to people from Charlotte about their amazing light-rail system, after all those years of work and millions of dollars, they’re obviously proud of it. But they acknowledge a little footnote that it’s not useful to them personally. It’s just the one line. There are plans for expansion, though, each line with its own complications and controversies; the whole system is scheduled to be completed by 2034.

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Naturally, I tried to imagine it here. People like to claim that East Tennesseans have a primal fear of public transit, a dread ingrained in our DNA. But Knoxville once had a model light-rail system. Knoxville was one of the South’s first cities to build an electric-streetcar system, beginning in 1890, and for more than half a century, it was a common way for the rich and the poor to get around.

Charlotte, the city, is four times bigger than Knoxville, the usual reason given for its public-transit advantage, and that’s a major factor. Strange as it may seem, though, until about 1950, Knoxville was bigger than Charlotte. You never know what the next decade will bring.

Charlotte has a couple of other advantages. Lynx began with a local half-cent sales-tax hike, but being in North Carolina, which has a bigger per-capita budget than Tennessee does, helps. Never mind the income tax, the Tarheel gas tax is 50 percent greater than ours. North Carolina just builds more impressive stuff than we do. The federal government pitched in, too, in flusher times. It’s looking harder to squeeze that turnip.

Another advantage is that Charlotte was able to gain access to an unused freight line, and those don’t pop up whenever you need them. On first glance, the most obvious place to put light rail in Knoxville would be along the Kingston Pike/Interstate 40 corridor, the most traveled commuter route. But that route would require either Norfolk Southern giving up a 150-year-old line they use every day—or, in the alternative, plowing through, or building over, miles of privately owned land, all of it occupied by something, even if it’s just parking lots. Suburban Knoxville businesses regard parking lots to be as vital as buildings.

Other routes, connecting downtown to Maryville/Alcoa and the airport, or to the north, as the University of Tennessee’s Center for Transportation Research Director David Clarke suggested last month, might be more feasible. There’s no bus to the airport, and it sure would be nice to have a way to get to the Smokies without suspecting you’re helping poison them every time you burn a few gallons to get there and back.

I’m not sure how big a city has to be before it earns the negotiating-table respect of the railroads. Over the years, I’ve gathered that Knoxville’s not there yet.

If Knoxville light rail happens, I, for one, will support it. And I’ll ride it to my new job as offensive coordinator for the Vols.

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