City Set To Move Ahead On Study For Light Rail System; But Some Council Members Skeptical

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

City officials are set to move ahead in applying for a grant to study setting up a light rail system in Chattanooga, though some City Council members are skeptical.

Blythe Bailey, city transportation director, said it might cost $20 million to set up a system that would use the Missionary Ridge Tunnel to go from downtown to the Chattanooga Airport as well as the Enterprise South Industrial Park.

He said a later phase going to South Chattanooga might cost $15 million.

Several council members praised the transportation director for "thinking bold," but others questioned whether that amount of money might better be used for other infrastructure.

Councilman Yusuf Hakeem, who has sparred with Mr. Bailey recently, said such a move would be another step in "squeezing out" the largely-minority taxi industry.

Mr. Bailey said, "Chattanooga is the 'Choo Choo City,' but people come here and ask, 'Where's the trains."

He added, "We felt that Chattanooga is a place where people ought to be able to ride the train."

Mr. Bailey said the city has a wide array of unused track and rail right of ways that might be put to use to give travelers another transit option.

He indicated that CARTA might be called upon to operate the light rail system.

The city is applying for a $400,000 federal TIGAR 6 grant that would require a $300,000 city match.

Council members Chris Anderson, Carol Berz and Moses Freeman praised the project, but Councilman Larry Grohn said such light rail systems are usually in much larger cities, not one the size of Chattanooga.

Councilman Jerry Mitchell said light rail is 15 to 20 years down the road in the area growth plan. He asked, "What's the rush?"

Councilman Anderson said it is in the plan for 2020. He said, "A lot of people have been talking about this the last few days and are excited about it."

Councilwoman Berz, favoring moving forward on the idea, said, "We need to get ahead of the curve."

The grant application was approved 8-1 with Chairman Chip Henderson opposed.

The city is also applying for a second TIGER 6 federal grant - $27 million for the $52 million Wilcox Tunnel project.

Mr. Bailey said he was assured that one project would not knock out the other, but they would be considered separately.

The city applied earlier for a TIGER 6 grant for the tunnel project and got turned down. Mr. Bailey said the city was encouraged to try again.

He said now there is not such an emphasis on having a project ready to go, but applicants are given up to two years to get it ready.


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