- Associated Press - Sunday, May 4, 2014

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - Chattanooga leaders are exploring an ambitious plan to provide a $35 million light rail public transportation system there.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports (http://bit.ly/1fIEhb6) the city council has asked the U.S. Transportation Department for a $400,000 grant to study the idea. If approved, the city would have to chip in another $300,000.

Although many details still have to be worked out, the plan calls for leaning heavily on existing tracks to which the city can acquire the rights.

“Even though you may have just one track, there’s a 12-foot right of way on either side of the existing line, so it’s pretty easy to add additional capacity and not very expensive,” said Ron Harr, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s getting the main right of way that costs so much money in other places.”


If the project goes through and is successful, advocates say it could redefine the way people move about the city, breathe new life into depressed parts of town and help Chattanooga’s business core.

Critics say that if it fails, it could expose the city to millions of dollars in operational costs to maintain an untested system that may not take people where they want to go.

The central axis for the project would be the intersection of Third Street and Holtzclaw Ave., a short walk to the Chattanooga Zoo, Warner Park or the National Cemetery.

The crossroads also links Chattanooga’s downtown core to its poorer eastern neighborhoods, and city officials say a new train station there could spur business and residential development at the same time it connects residents of neglected neighborhoods - many of whom don’t own cars - to jobs in other parts of the city.

“Because rail is permanently in the ground, it has a better effect of spurring economic reinvestment in neighborhoods that really need it,” city Transportation Director Blythe Bailey said. “As with any transportation option, the more ways to get where you need to go, the better.”

But the permanence can also be a down side. It’s far easier to change a bus route than to move a rail station that isn’t seeing many customers.

For decades now, cities have moved away from rail travel, but the trend is reversing. Some 50 U.S. cities are planning or already operating light rail and streetcar services. Some of them share a number of similarities with Chattanooga.

But Jeff Brown, a Florida State University professor who researches light rail and other public transit projects, is skeptical that Chattanooga could build its line for the promised $35 million and that the city could secure full access to railroad-owned lines.

“It’s definitely ambitious for a city that size,” Brown said. “My sense is if they’re trying to get federal funding for this, they need to have a really compelling argument. What are they thinking this thing will do?”

If Chattanooga does go through with train service, the location of the stops will be the key to whether it succeeds or fails, Brown said. Referring to a couple of Florida projects that failed, he said they were “not really providing access to places that lots of people want to go.”

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