Fri
Nov 30 2007
01:28 am

So as to not overburden those of you who don't have the time to read my long background explanation, I'll give you the great news here. In Sunday's Charlotte Oberver, there's an article (link...) about Saturday's opening of their new LYNX light rail line. The public interest was astounding, with sixty thousand people standing in line (some for as long as two hours) to ride the system. That's equal to ten percent of the city's population! The public support and interest is overwhleming. Take note, Knoxville area leaders and decision makers. This isn't Portland or somewhere in California. It's Charlotte, just over the mountains from good old Knoxville. For those who say "It may happen in other places, but it won't happen in Knoxville", or "Knoxville won't have light rail for a long time" (to quote a certain top Knoxvile elected offical this week), I hope they open their eyes and see the possibilities. While Charlotte's bigger than Knoxville, it's very similar in many ways. Bottom line, it's another southeastern city a whole lot like us.

For those who would like more background, I'll share my recent experience with this Charlotte phenomenon. Monday before last, I was in the Queen City to attend the ribbon-cutting of the new light rail line. I went at the invitation of a friend who is on city council there, and had originally hoped to pull together (on short notice) a small contingent from Knoxville to go with me. I was only able to find one individual who could go, and unfortunately none of my fellow Knoxville City Council members were able to attend.

We left at 5:00 a.m., and arrived in time for the VIP breakfast, followed by the appropriate speeches from various political leaders and officials (inlcuding both US senators). Then came the ribbon cutting and the VIP rides on the system. We chose the ride to the end and back (ten miles one way), but others with less time took the fifteen minute round-trip excursion.

The system is absolutely beautiful, and is as good as any I've seen in any city in this country and abroad. It wasn't cheap, with a total price tag (including overruns) of around $300 million. That number carries with it the potential for sticker shock for those not used to the cost of big urban transportation projects (less than two miles of freeway in Knoxville's Smart Fix 40 project came in at a whopping $200 million). The system cost has to be looked at in the context of its total impact. Not only does it have the potential for taking huge numbers off the highly congested highways, but it has a wonderful impact on development patterns.

In Charlotte's case, as in the case of most cities that have built such systems, developers are eager to build higher desnity mixed-use projects adjacent to light rail stations. Prior to the opening of the LYNX line, they had already counted upwards of $1.4 billion in new real estate development in station areas along the line. Transit Orriented Development (TOD) is being recognized as a huge boon to cities, and a clear alternative to the typical (and costly) sprawl we've begun to be so concerned over.

What Charlotte has done is a model that deserves close attention. In 1997, they developed a regional vsion for transportation and land use that outlined an approach centered on rail transit spokes raidiating from the downtown core. The plan went to the voters in 1998 for funding in the form of a half cent sales tax dedicated strickly to transit. It passed by a narrow margin, and has funded a much improved and expanded bus system along with the beginnings of a great rail transit backbone.

The transit sales tax, and the great system it supported, faced a major threat this year. The LYNX light rail line that was under construction experienced major cost overruns, due mostly to forces beyond their control. In addition to a federal funding system that takes a decade now to get from initial plans and cost estimates to acutal construction (a situation that makes it impossible to budget), the skyrocketing costs of construction materials (resulting from Katrina recovery and new demand from China) hit them at the worst time. There was a backlash from anti-tax forces allied with anti-rail transit groups (who operate on a nationwide level). They got over 37,000 petition signatures and put a measure on the ballot to rescind the transit sales tax. Not only did their effort fail on November 6th, but it was denied by seventy percent of the voters. The transit advocates came out of that fight with the wind to their backs.

My friends in Charlotte have given an open invitation to bring as many people from Knoxville as will come, so they can share what they've learned with us. Stay tuned.

134
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Brian A.'s picture

Nice

I don't know how if Knoxville is anywhere close to having the riders needed to make a project like that viable. But if we ever get there, one nice thing about this city is that we have a natural route from Farragut to downtown.

Brian A.
I'd rather be cycling.

jbr's picture

I could possibly see its

I could possibly see its immediate value from maybe campus or Western Plaza to Farragut. Maybe from UT student housing on Sutherland to campus. Possible future plans for the airport and downtown and north to Fountain City. Maybe a spur to East Town.

Some UT students recently told me bus service did not go far enough west for some things they needed access to like drivers license office. It also does not run late enough for folks that study until 1 am or later in labs. Sprawl obviously causes some practicality issues for mass transit.

My view is the most significant immediate value of passenger rail as far as Knoxville is concerned is intercity
connectivity.

Carole Borges's picture

I agree Inter-city

"My view is the most significant immediate value of passenger rail as far as Knoxville is concerned is intercity connectivity."

That seems most important to me.

Factchecker's picture

This is great. Let's see...

This is great. Let's see... $100 million per mile for interstate upgrade or $30 million per mile for new passenger light rail. Hmmm... Which is more cost effective? But isn't light rail cost prohibitive? That's all Knoxville "experts" keep saying, anyway.

It's interesting too this took only 10 years. How many years did the I-40 widening take, not to mention the Pelissippi interchange? At least several years each.

If some existing freight rail lines could be shared, there is existing infrastructure that parallels much of our still-overburdened roadways.

And there is the safety factor that Jack Neely wrote about a few weeks ago. When do we consider the price of lives lost in auto accidents? Fatalities occur routinely, even right on the commute stretches of I-40. It's time for society to start thinking beyond the assumption that the cost of human lives, what--3000/year in Tennessee?--, are a necessary sacrifice for our mobile lifestyle.

gonzone's picture

Yes

Great points all.

And then there's the environmental considerations of light rail vs autos.

Give me a choice between a relaxing train ride commute and a frustrating traffic jam and another element enters in, quality of life.

A light rail system would be the single best investment for the future Knoxville could make in infrastructure, period. People like to live near such transport.

KC's picture

One question is...

what type of average commuter uses the light rail in Charlotte as compared to who would use it in Knoxville?

I know that besides just the difference in population, there is a substantial difference involving business activity in the cities' downtown areas.

Charlotte has become a leading banking and financial center in the nation, much less the South, whereas Knoxville, although strengthening in that area and others, really isn't anywhere close.

Plus, concerning UT, how would the times during the year when UT is not in session affect ridership?

Also since it would seem like the success of such a transit system is based, generally, on moving people from one large, centralized, dense group of residences to a large, dense group of centralized businesses, the question is, do Knoxville and Knox County really have something that is comparable to Charlotte and its surrounding area?

I think we made a big mistake when we gave up riding the rails. My dad used to take the train from Concord into Knoxville way back yonder.

But, unless the system is put on existing railroad lines, without building new ones, the questions of acquiring right-of-ways and NIMBY would be challenging to overcome.

KC's picture

It's interesting too this

It's interesting too this took only 10 years. How many years did the I-40 widening take,

I-40 is not just a local thoroughfare. It's really I-40, I-81, and I-75. I know it carries a lot of local traffic, but it also carries a lot of out-of-town, and out-of-state traffic. I wonder what the statistics show on how much interstate traffic is local traffic on the Knoxville section of the interstate?

Rachel's picture

You want to get some idea of

You want to get some idea of the answer to that question, drive I40 from Lovell Road to downtown between 7:30 and 8:00 a.m. some morning.

"The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones." - John Maynard Keynes

bill young's picture

Free & Easy

1.create a core that the ride is FREE

2.No one should ever wait for more than 15 minutes

Carole Borges's picture

Yeah, I like the 15 minute

Yeah, I like the 15 minute rule. Most of Chicago operasted that way, frequent affordable, dependable transportation that would take you within a block or so of anything in the city is a real blessing.

KC's picture

You want to get some idea of

You want to get some idea of the answer to that question, drive I40 from Lovell Road to downtown between 7:30 and 8:00 a.m. some morning.

You don't have to tell me. I know many people who think the interstate is Kingston Pike sans traffic lights and speed limits.

But your response does bring up a question. If people use the interstate and get on at Lovell and get off at West Hills or Papermill, how does that work on a railway transit system?

I mean, when they get off at West Hills, some go to West Town, some to Kohls, Borders, and Old Navy, and some go up or down the pike. These places aren't that far apart, but they're not within a convienent walking distance of each other either.

Isn't the Charlotte type transit system best for moving people to centralized areas, where various destinations are within walking distances of each other?

Stick Thrower's picture

Surely you're kidding...

I mean, when they get off at West Hills, some go to West Town, some to Kohls, Borders, and Old Navy, and some go up or down the pike. These places aren't that far apart, but they're not within a convienent walking distance of each other either.

Those places are all within a block of each other. Believe it or not, in some cities people are actually able to walk that far.

Anonymous's picture

Shuttles

^ That is where the updated bus service comes in, a loop shuttle around the area's shopping centers and points of interest.

R. Neal's picture

I think the point of a light

I think the point of a light rail system is to plan for fundamental change way, way into the future. It has to be planned around where higher density, mixed use development can occur (as Joe H. points out) that can promote and support public transportation and vice versa.

It would require a whole new way of planning and looking at things. It would not seem feasible or desirable to try to graft it on to the existing suburban highway patterns. It would be designed to eventually replace them, or at least provide a separate but desirable alternative.

People just aren't going to abandon their cars to shop at West Town and Turkey Creek. People used to, however, ride the bus downtown and shop at the numerous department and specialty stores that used to be there. That seems like a better model for light rail or other convenient public transportation.

That said, there are existing patterns that could be served by light rail or some kind of public transportation. Park and rides to downtown from Farragut and other points west make sense. Blount Co., too. Airport shuttles serving office parks like Cedar Bluff and the Downtown areas might make sense as well.

gonzone's picture

Exactly and I proposed this for 9 Counties, 1 Vision

Great point.

Light rail does not have to follow current highway corridors.
A downtown hub is essential.
Lines to desirable locations are necessary.
Shuttle buses are used in every cities light rail plan.
Also parking areas at terminals are necessary (and profitable.)

Imagine several spokes from a downtown hub to the greater area.
1) the airport, also covering Alcoa and Maryville downtown stops.
2) six to eight stops west to Farragut/Concord
3) South to Seymour, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg.
4) Northwest to Powell, Clinton, Oak Ridge
5) North to Fountain City, Halls.
6) East to Straw Plains?

redmondkr's picture

On a bicycle ride a few

On a bicycle ride a few weeks back I noticed coaches apparently from the Three Rivers Rambler being used to shuttle fans into Neyland for a football game. The old Southern Railway (Now NS) branch from that area that goes all the way to downtown Maryville could serve in a similar capacity. It has another plus, it isn't so busy freight-wise as to cause friction with its owner as with Amtrak and their host railroads.

CSX trackage runs from the same area to a point tantalizingly close to McGhee Tyson as well but they are probably way too busy with their freight operation to entertain the idea of sharing their rails with a passenger service.

Ah, but how wonderful to escape Alcoa Highway traffic with a leisurely ride from the airport to downtown! Provide a nearby car rental center for those who need a vehicle and Bob's your uncle.


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Wearybottom Associates

metulj's picture

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Not. Enough. Density. I live in Hudson County, NJ (11000 people per sq mile) and our light rail, while nice, has only just now starting to coming into its own. It would be fun to have light rail in Knoxville for the enthusiasts, but intercity rail makes more sense.

True happiness is knowing you are a hypocrite. -- Ivor Cutler

KC's picture

Can you?

Those places are all within a block of each other. Believe it or not, in some cities people are actually able to walk that far.

I live within walking distance of all those places, and I know of few people who could walk from Belks with a bag of purchases to Kohls, and pick up another bag and then stroll on up to Barnes and Noble and pick up a few books.

All within a block? Do you have any clue to how the streets and sidewalks are laid out in the area?

In fact, since you seem to know, how far is "that far?" Say from Belks to Kohls to Borders. Have you walked it yourself?

Stick Thrower's picture

You're right, Gary

How in the world do people in New York and Chicago survive, walking for blocks and blocks carrying bags of stuff?

The only reason why it's "that far" is because of the acres of asphalt--for parking. I guarantee you I can walk from Belk to Borders or Kohl's faster than you can get to your car and cross the street and park again, especially this time of year.

Stan G's picture

Yes

In fact, since you seem to know, how far is "that far?" Say from Belks to Kohls to Borders. Have you walked it yourself?

I've done it just about every time I shop in the area, although I admit I avoid shopping in the area if at all possible.

What's this talk about sidewalks? I can recall short pieces along Morrell Road but none that would make the area pedestrian friendly. I can also recall a Walk/Don't Walk signal. Apparently the City decided that it took the sport out of crossing Morrell Road and removed it.

Stan G's picture

Charlotte's Advantage

They have a ballpark, but since it’s about two miles from it to the closest light rail station, it’s doubtful that the two can be connected with a homerun.

For starters, let’s not use the most expensive Interstate project in TDOT’s history to make the cost comparison. And, let’s not assume that you can use a heavily traveled freight line for passenger service; it’s not going to happen anytime in the near future. FRA regulations restrict dual usage.

Too many good arguments have already been made to explain why the prospect for light rail service in the Knoxville area is slim to none. Looking at a map of Charlotte’s new service, it runs from a station close to an Interstate exit and follows an existing track through downtown with several downtown stops. My best guess is that the track is not used by through freight trains during the day, if at all, and that a short line services the industrial sidings south of the Interstate during the time the light rail system is not operating.

As others have mentioned, intercity rail should be the priority and in the southeast the first link should be between Chattanooga and Atlanta. Locally, let’s hope we see more piggyback freight service, which will further reduce possible time slots for intra city passenger service.

As an aside, let me relate the story of a friend who rode one of the last passenger trains to serve Knoxville. At the time, he had four boys under age six so he decided to take the train to Florida to visit the in-laws rather than drive. On the way back, the conductor woke him about dawn and told him that he would have to transfer at the upcoming station. He got his sleepy family and their luggage off the train and found himself in what he considered the middle-of-nowhere on the platform of a closed railroad station with only the word of the conductor that a second train would take them to Knoxville. Walking around he discovered he was in Ooltewah; he was a member of one of Tennessee’s First Family steeped in local history, however he had never heard of Ooltewah. Needless to say, he was one overjoyed father when the train to Knoxville pulled into the station.

Brian's picture

Actually, the freight trains

Actually, the freight trains often run right next to the light rail trains during the day. Cargill has a plant at he Tyvola stop and trains often stop there.

metulj's picture

On the same tracks? True

On the same tracks?

True happiness is knowing you are a hypocrite. -- Ivor Cutler

KC's picture

The only reason why it's

The only reason why it's "that far" is because of the acres of asphalt--for parking. I guarantee you I can walk from Belk to Borders or Kohl's faster than you can get to your car and cross the street and park again, especially this time of year.

No doubt you can...this time of year. Of course the parking lots are the cause of the distance in those shopping areas. But unless we start moving buildings closer together, the distance will still be there. I agree with R.Neal in that the light rail will require a strategic change in planning.

I do believe though, that if you look at Charlotte, head down I-85 through Cherokee County (home of the Peachoid) where Duke Power wants to build a nuclear power plant to Spartanburg to Greenville (home of BMW and ICAR) and on to Atlanta, you're looking at an area that is already heavily suburban and could benefit from a light rail system linking those cities together.

I believe light rail system is an interesting concept, but I don't think it's practical for Knoxville at this time.

MJBiker's picture

Are there any plans in

Are there any plans in Knoxville to get some TOD development/redevelopment projects rolling? I think a shift in the land use planning around the area is far overdue and would be an excellent first step towards getting light-rail to work for us. The FTA has very specific guidelines concerning demand modeling for the potential funding of new rail projects. Unfortuantely, the standardized models they require do not currently account for the relationship between land use and transportation. This makes it very difficult to make anything besides more roads (and especially rail projects) look worthy of funding. But with a few TODs, we could probably make a great case for getting some BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) projects going. BRT is far cheaper to implement than rail and is a reasonable step towards rail. Since BRT typically requires significant capital investment and right-of-way construction, it can boost economic development if the route is chosen wisely. BRT right-of-way can always be converted to rail or BRT+Rail use as demand and funding for rail increases. So how about we get a TOD zoning designation?

Anonymous's picture

Existing Trolley Lines

When Broadway was resurfaced two years ago I guess it was, the old trolley rail lines were completely visible during the process. Does anyone know what the cost would be to resurrect & refurbish paved-over rail lines? It would have to be less expensive than installing all new rail lines - isn't that the most expensive component to starting up a light rail system? Rolling stock could consist of heritage trolleys and perhaps eventually these modern coaches as seen in Charlotte...Siemens vehicles I believe. Also, does anyone know if all the rail lines were simply paved over, or were some completely removed from the street?

In my opinion, if there's a less-expensive portal to get Knoxville's light rail system started, then resurrecting what's already there seems like a cost-effective way to do so. I agree completely with the population-density issues and the needs to focus on intercity rail - especially to the airport - but on the subject of Knoxville's Light Rail - Starting up a system with what already exists seems like a great money saving idea.

Anonymous's picture

Light Rail is a great option

We love the rail here in Charlotte. Many of us would like to see it extended futher south into Pineville and the Ballantyne area of Charlotte. Ridership is now at a steady 12k daily average (about 35% higher than the projected 9100) and they have to instaill more ticket kiosks at the southern end of the line. They may also run the trains later and possible more frequently during the day because ridership is high. It's great to be able to drive a few miles from where I live over the border in SC, get on the train and go into South End or uptown Charlotte.

I haven't been to Knoxville, but there were a few things that made this line possible in Charlotte. One was exisiting rail line (most of it still in use) from uptown to I-485. Another was the Charlotte Trolley. They restored an old car and ran it along the nortern end of the tracks. Then they redid the bridge over 277 so the trolley could get to the convention center and uptown. The trolley was a huge hit and CATS took over its operation with 3 more cars added. The light rail is essentially an extension of that.

Our trolley service will return in spring of 2008, but the original car 85 won't run due to safety concerns.

Mykhailo's picture

Give me a choice between a

Give me a choice between a relaxing train ride commute and a frustrating traffic jam and another element enters in, quality of life.

For lots of people, maybe most, the commute will probably be similar to mine in DC:

15 minute walk to Metro
15 minute wait for train because I always timed it wrong
25 minute ride to my stop
15 minute wait for bus
35 minute bus ride to school
15 minute walk across campus
--
2 hours total, in a metro area with one of the most elaborate transit systems in the country. And I was only 6 stops away, didn't have to change trains, and was going opposite of commuter traffic so I never had to wait for 2 or 3 trains to find one that had space.

Compared with 30 minutes driving (45 minutes during rush hour, max 60 minutes on a really awful day), and parking in the center of campus, plus the option of stopping at the grocery store or doing other errands on the way home.

It was nice being able to work on the train, but after 2 years, it got to be a real drag.

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