cover_story (2006-15)

Joe Bailey

CORRALING CORRIDORS: Jeff Welch, director of the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, is hoping for a state grant to identify transit corridors around the city.

Pete Claussen

TRANSPORTATION CLOUT: U. S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan sees rail transit as a long-term, if expensive, possibility, for the Knoxville area.

Mounting the steps to the glistening stainless car, you ease down the aisle, settle into a cushy window seat and start imagining the day ahead amid the swirl of Dollywood, the evening in a cozy creekside hotel room at Gatlinburg, and the following day hiking among the flowering rhododendron of the Smokies. Next morning, you expect to shop among the Pigeon Forge factory outlets, then take a go-cart ride, cool off on a waterslide and be back in Knoxville for dinner in the Old City. You did it all without buying a gallon of gas, raging at the slow cars that hem you in on the Parkway or paying a penny for parking spaces that took an hour out of your weekend fling to find.

You made your little trip through East Tennessee’s most popular tourist attractions/traps, and you had a great time doing it—all by rail. All you needed for the venture you took in a backpack. That could be you, or your kids, or your grandkids taking the trip by rail.

Passenger train or light rail service for and around Knoxville may sound like a pipedream, even with the cost of motor fuels doubling in the last few years and promising to go much higher. The rail idea, however, is getting much more attention at the local level than it was when gasoline and diesel fuel were cheap, and there is renewed interest in mass-transit alternatives at both the state and federal level.

Part of the pro-rail reasoning at all levels is that air quality in Knoxville and the vicinity, which is already low and is worsened by vehicular traffic volume, threatens to get much poorer. Rail service is being viewed as an option, albeit an expensive, long-term option, along with express, rubber-tired bus service that would use its own special highway lanes and burn alternative fuels.

Advocates of a new, comprehensive analysis of rail travel’s potential for Knoxville include a couple of members of crusading City Council. Joe Hultquist, the South Knoxville councilman, and Joe Bailey, whose district is in West Knoxville, have discussed the possibility of getting federal assistance for a new mass-transit study, and each makes a case for rail service in the city’s future.

Neither of those councilmen believes this is too soon to take a long-range look at rail transit’s possibilities, even though it could be decades before any such service would come on line.

Their efforts include discussing the idea with members of Congress and with officials of the 10-year-old Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning organization and the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Both impassioned advocates of rail travel as an efficient, environmentally friendlier alternative form of transportation to the private automobile, they are also trying to build public support and identify other rail transit advocates to assist them.

Hultquist says that economic growth projected for the Knoxville market, along with attendant traffic and environmental concerns, dictates a thorough new study of transportation options. “You can’t talk about anything without talking about transportation,” he says.

He and Bailey agree on the need for such a transit analysis, and both are looking toward the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a possible destination for a rail line or loop from Knoxville through Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg to the park, perhaps returning through Townsend, Maryville and Alcoa via McGhee Tyson Airport.

That loop is an ambitious proposal any way it might be viewed, costing hundreds of millions of dollars and taking decades to get approved, funded and put in place. But the councilmen say they are looking decades down the road and the feasibility should be examined now in detail. A proposed extension of the James White Parkway to Sevierville should be designed with multiple uses—including car and bus transit, a greenway and rail potential—in mind, they say. Such an all-encompassing entryway to the tourist mecca in Sevier County would benefit Knoxville, restoring its former title, “Gateway to the Smokies” and funneling many of the visitors through the city and its airport, the Council members point out.

And a jumpstart to the western leg of such a loop could be promoted by getting a rail link set up between the World’s Fair Park downtown and Alcoa and Maryville, serving the airport as well as the three communities along its length.

Such a rail link is not inconceivable to Jeff Welch, director of the RTPO in Knoxville, because the Norfolk-Southern Railroad, which owns the track that might be used for the link, has recently changed its position on the uses of its tracks. It has shown a new willingness to consider leasing little-used freight lines, like the one connecting its main line in its downtown Knoxville yards to ALCOA, for passenger service. The aluminum company’s plants occupy vast tracts east of Alcoa Highway, where an airport spur off existing rails could be established in about a half-mile, mostly through ALCOA property. But Welch says the demand for such service would have to be established first.

The RPTO, Welch says, has applied to TDOT for a $50,000 grant to study what he refers to as “transit corridors” around the city, including the downtown-airport-Maryville connection, one out Asheville Highway toward undeveloped land in East Knox County and, possibly, a Knoxville-Sevierville connection.

Such a grant could not possibly produce studies of all three corridors in any detail, Hultquist says, but would constitute a good start. Bailey, on the other hand, has come up with a rationale that he believes could justify a substantial federal grant to look into the plausibility of linking Knoxville with the national park.

“I got a chance to talk with Congressman Don Young [R-Alaska], the House Transportation Committee chairman, when he was here not long ago, and I suggested that a rail line to the park might be a model for other national parks, linking them with population centers.”

Bailey says he got a positive response from the congressman, as well as from Knoxville’s Rep. Jimmy Duncan, who serves with Young on the Transportation Committee and is in line for a shot at that chair, depending on the outcome of this fall’s elections.

Duncan, who holds the chair of that committee’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment, also serves with Young on the House Resources Committee and is a member of its Subcommittee on National Parks, seems ideally situated to advance any Smokies traffic- and smog-relief initiative.

“It’s a good idea,” Duncan says of the rail link, “but there are two problems: One, almost everybody has a light rail proposal in their state, and two; almost nobody is getting one because if the expense.

“I’m for it, but you’re talking about a long-term thing. The University of Tennessee has a great transportation department right there, and I’d like to get them to do a preliminary study of the possibility.” Speaking for the UT Center for Transportation research, which awards transportation degrees in civil engineering and business administration, Stephen Richards, director of the UT Center for Transportation Research, says his staff of 100 has the capability to perform such a preliminary study. He says the center has been involved in earlier studies of transportation options for the Knoxville area, giving it some background that could facilitate an updated analysis.

The beauty of the Smokies loop idea, Bailey says, is that it combines commuter uses with tourism uses, enabling Knoxville to resume its role as “Gateway to the Smokies,” while providing commuter service to and from the growing communities in Sevier and Blount Counties and serving the region’s airport, all in one.

Hultquist says he has talked with Sevier officials and says, “They are motivated to get a direct transit link to the airport to help alleviate congestion and provide better access.”

The cities along the route from I-40 to the national park through Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg already have rubber-tired trolley transit in place within their limits, up and down the Parkway, with interconnecting trolley routes, and are cooperating to see that service succeed, but vehicular traffic is still almost continuously snarled along that route, and the county has just about run out of ways to increase the number of lanes without rerouting vehicles away from existing tourist businesses.

Larry Waters, the Sevier County mayor who has just announced his candidacy as a Republican for the 1st District congressional seat, says Tenn. 66 through its Parkway route to Gatlinburg has 65,000 vehicles a day pass by some points on its pavement, and that traffic is a problem that impedes the trolleys themselves at times. Traffic volume at that level also releases tons of pollutants into the air, a concern that is growing in the county right alongside its tourism successes.

Waters, who is also a member of the county’s transportation board, says Sevier has looked at the possibility of a Pellissippi Parkway extension to Chapman Highway as an airport connector, first for private autos and more recently as a route for a rapid transit line, using express buses.

“I’m very supportive of the rail possibility,” Waters says of the concept of a Knoxville-airport-Smokies loop, but he says the cost is a primary consideration when rail lines are being contemplated.

Preliminary cost estimates for running a rail transit line from I-40 to Gatlinburg, Waters says, were $400-500 million, while a dedicated bus or trolley rapid transit lane on the same axis was estimated at $80-to-$100 million. When talking those kinds of costs, he says, federal money is needed, “and we’re competing with Boston and Los Angeles and all other big cities for those dollars,” The federal government doesn’t put priority on tourist movement, he says, and it also “moves very slowly. We need assistance now,” he says of the traffic situation in his county, “and mass transit is part of the answer.”

Eventually, environmental concerns alone will drive the federal transportation agencies toward mass transit, with rail travel being the least polluting when diesel-electric, biodiesel-electric or all-electric propulsion means are employed.

“The rail possibility is not out of the question by any means,” Hultquist says. “We need a broad consensus, with the leading decision-makers involved, and the public behind them. I don’t think we’re there yet, but it’s something we can work on. We need the buy-in of the total community, and the governments will follow,” he says, speaking specifically toward the James White Parkway and its future extension as an intermodal transportation corridor to Sevierville and beyond, and of the airport connection Sevier wants.

Though the Federal Transit Administration, which has a say in all such matters when federal funds are involved, has traditionally looked at rapid transit strictly from the commuter standpoint, Doug Burton, principal planner for the RPTO in Knoxville, says the feds have recently begun to look into the tourism aspect of such links, whether by rail or by express bus.

That organization’s Regional Transportation Alternatives Plan of 2002, based on research by the Knoxville office of Wilbur Smith Associates, a consultant firm out of Columbia, S.C., looked into Sevier County along with other communities surrounding Knoxville, including Oak Ridge, in its study. A first shot at a bus link connecting West Knoxville and Oak Ridge has run into problems siting suitable parking at the West Knox end, but the bus idea took precedence over any rail concept because of much lower costs.

It’s been 36 years since rail travel was available to potential passengers in the Knoxville area, except for amusement purposes. Aside from the downtown-Fountain City line, a late 19th-century train link that eventually folded into the city’s streetcar system, there never was an interurban geared for workers here such as those that characterized commuter corridors around many large and medium-sized American cities a century ago and still do run the rails in some larger markets like Chicago.

The highways, streets and roads developed to accommodate the private automobile and the proliferation of air links around the country caused the nation’s private railroads to scrap passenger service almost altogether by the 1970s, and trucks have taken much of America’s freight service onto the interstate highway system and its feeder highways since that time.

Nearly all of the interconnecting rail rights-of-way that served surrounding counties for small-industry or timber and lumber access and could conceivably have been reclaimed for passenger use in the future have been abandoned. Those have reverted to the multiple private-property owners along their ways, and the rails have mostly been pulled up and scrapped. Suffice it to say that those rail links that still are usable won’t be abandoned. The RTPO’s Welch says that to lose any more rail rights-of-way would be unthinkable, given the transportation outlook for the future.

The concept of commuter rail service requires large numbers of people living or working at one end of the line and working or living at the other, with contributing populations in between. Knoxville’s work force and its jobs have been decentralizing for decades, and that dispersal makes rail mass-transit appear almost impossible to design effectively.

Pete Claussen, the chief executive of the Gulf & Ohio Railroad, a Knoxville-based company that operates short-line rail connections in several states, including Tennessee, is skeptical of the future of rail passenger service, though freight, he says, should be moved as much as possible by rail, for environmental reasons.

Claussen is a lover of rail transportation who subsidizes passenger excursions on Three Rivers Rambler over his company’s rails. It’s a steam-powered train his family runs from the Knoxville waterfront to the Forks of the River and back along the Tennessee River on tracks the G & O uses for freight service for industrial customers. A doubter of any reason to consider rail passenger service here, he says, pithily, “In order to have mass transit, you have to have both mass and transit.”

Claussen likens regular passenger demand to a barbell.

It must maintain weight at each end of the bar. “If you’ve got only one end of the barbell, you’re going to drop it on your foot.”

The Knoxville airport, Claussen says, does not have enough traffic going to or from any one destination to support even an express bus, let alone a train. “People who use the airport come from all over—Oneida, Morristown, Oak Ridge, and so on, and most of them are going to and from home,” he says. They use their own cars, rent cars on business trips, use hotel vans or taxicabs, all going to different places, he says, and bringing them to downtown Knoxville by or for an airport train wouldn’t help them, Claussen says. He says the Sevierville to Gatlinburg route probably comes closest, in this area, to supporting a train. Its linear setting could allow for a rail line to alleviate major traffic issues there.

“The traffic problems we have across most of this region,” Claussen says, “are not caused by passenger cars, they are caused by trucks.” A rail-freight advocate by profession, Claussen says that not only traffic issues, but environmental issues as well, are exacerbated more by trucks than by cars. He says improving rail infrastructure from Washington, D.C. down to Knoxville and beyond, would take 1,000 to 1,500 trucks per day off the I-81/I-40 route through Virginia and Tennessee.

To that end, says Rep. Duncan, he helped get a $250,000 appropriation to do a rail improvement study along the I-81 corridor in Virginia, and this fiscal year’s federal appropriation, contained in the Highway Bill, for such rail improvements is $600 million, according to Duncan’s staff, with about $50 million going to the Norfolk-Southern division that includes Virginia.

Likewise, Zach Wamp, the Chattanoogan who serves the congressional district south and west of Knoxville, says he believes the idea of a Knoxville-Smokies rail loop “deserves consideration.” But he is devoting his energies on transportation issues toward obtaining approval and federal funding for a high-speed rail link between the Atlanta and Chattanooga airports, since Atlanta’s airport is overloaded, not expandable, and Chattanooga’s is underused and expandable.

Both Wamp and Duncan say that rail improvements from Washington through Virginia to Bristol and from Atlanta to Chattanooga would seem to make a Washington to Atlanta passenger link through Knoxville, 90 miles from each terminus in Bristol and Chattanooga, the next logical step. Their proposals, however, are competing with another plan that would add a truck lane or two to I-81 itself, bringing more truck traffic into East Tennessee.

The most recent TDOT statewide rail plan, only a couple of years old now, lists the resumption of once-flourishing rail service between Knoxville and Nashville as “critical in establishing a statewide network,” lending it first priority in the state’s view. That plan further acknowledges Knoxville’s pivotal location in that network, by describing needed links between Knoxville and the Tri-Cities and Knoxville and Chattanooga. Nashville-Memphis is the only other link that’s discussed in the statewide network, and its principal motive would be to move freight traffic, although passenger service, such as Amtrak, could be provided later once the links were established.

State and federal support of Knoxville’s transit service and its possible commuter links have, however, been limited to non-rail conveyances, specifically buses and express-bus proposals and demonstrations.

“If you can’t support a bus route, you can’t support a train,” says Claussen, who says rail passenger service doesn’t make enough money to support operating costs, much less capital costs, and has to be heavily subsidized by the public and its tax dollars. “There’s not a private company anywhere in the world running passenger service, that I know of,” he says, “except for amusement purposes. Amtrak doesn’t make operating costs. Private companies can’t be subsidized enough to make [passenger service] work, and won’t be able to, for the foreseeable future because of costs, and because of liability.”

Hultquist, however, says that no transportation options are available that don’t require massive subsidy by the public, including automobiles, trucks and buses that must have public roadways, plus parking areas, traffic law enforcement, and other associated social costs. And that doesn’t include the environmental costs. He believes rail transit, which tends to create its own user-densities and demand around established stations, is the wave of the future and that walking (or driving, as it were) away from it in the past was a costly mistake that the public must eventually pay for.

Mass transit in one form or another must grow in use in response to spiraling motor-fuel costs and, eventually, scarcity of petroleum resources that will force it back into a dominant place in the transportation spectrum, Bailey and Hultquist argue. The question, they say, is not if, but when a comprehensive transit network will be desperately needed.

“If we don’t start preparing for it, at least analyzing all of our options and picking the best ones to pursue,” says Bailey, “we’re going to fall too far behind to ever catch up.”

Bailey stares ruefully down the rails, still in fair shape, that run north toward Knoxville from the old Maryville railroad depot, on a spur of the former Knoxville & Atlanta Railroad line that was bought by the Southern Railway, now Norfolk-Southern, about 100 years ago. He thinks out loud how nice it would be to have that train, with passenger cars, in service tomorrow, if not today. The depot itself is being restored—as a dentist’s office.

On the way down to Maryville, Bailey looks in vain for the spur from the same Norfolk-Southern track that was once the Smoky Mountain Railroad, running from Vestal along a route between Sevierville Pike and Chapman Highway, right up the main street of Sevierville to a sawmill a little south of that town in Sevier County.

The reason he can’t find it is that the rails were scrapped by a buyer in the 1970s, when no one had the foresight to preserve the tracks for generations to come, thinking the steel was worth more than the line itself. That regrettable fact is recalled by Bill Kerley, a retired Southern Railway engineer who remembered riding that line and whose last run before retirement in the early ’70s was to a lumber company south of Maryville, toward Townsend, on tracks that have also been scrapped. In his ‘80s, comfortable in his West Hills home, Kerley says it isn’t just nostalgia that makes him wish passenger service was back in vogue in Knoxville. “It was a wonderful, peaceful, easy way to travel,” Kerley says, “and it still could be, or it could be again someday.”

Someday, Claussen says, could be a long way away. Not less than 20 and possibly 50 years away. “It’s not just the infrastructure of track and train, you’ve got to have the density (of population) to support a train…. You’ve got to have convenience and comfort and timeliness, too, but density is the main thing.

“If we ever get that kind of density here,” Claussen says, “I’m leaving.”

We didn’t ask him how he’s going to get wherever he’ll be going if that happens. But he owns a railroad. Lucky guy.