How About Light Rail for Knoxville?

Shot from the South Side of the Downtown Rail Bridge (Photo Joe Hultquist)

Ed. Note: This is the third in a series of four article by guest writer Joe Hultquist. In the first, he introduced the topic of light rail transit. He followed with an article highlighting the obstacles to implementing light rail transit.


Imagine a light rail transit system serving at least one of our major urban corridors, facilitating the transformation of that corridor into a place filled with vibrant, mixed used developments that would house and serve the needs of a major part of our greater Knoxville community; providing a great alternative to driving in congestion. Is it possible? If so, how would it happen and what would it look like?

The two previous articles in this series have addressed the overall concept of light rail transit, and the traditional challenges and barriers to its inception. Here’s the crux of the matter to bring you up to speed: Federally funded light rail is extremely expensive and usually places the burden on tax payers. It costs a lot.

But what if it didn’t? What if light rail was possible in East Tennessee at a tenth of the cost of a typical system and was led by private funding with little to no incremental cost to taxpayers? This opportunity is real and right in front of us.

Downtown Rail Bridge, Knoxville, September 2018 (Photo Joe Hultquist)

I have been passionate about transportation (highways as well as transit) since before my two terms on City Council. I attended national and international conferences and trade shows, visited both operating systems and equipment manufacturers (in this country and in Europe), and built relationships with practitioners, consultants and others in the field. From the start, the high hurdles to pursuing rail transit quickly came into focus. It was very expensive, the dedicated real estate (right-of-way) was hard to acquire, and “essential” federal funding was generally out of reach for smaller metro areas like Knoxville’s.

InnoTrans, Berlin, Germany, 2012 (Photo by Joe Hultquist)

I concluded the only way to make rail transit work in this context was to use existing rail lines, to reduce costs dramatically, and to avoid getting caught in the major government funding quagmire. To put that in a contemporary context, it could be something like the rail transit equivalent of doing what SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and a host of other upstart commercial spaceflight companies are doing to the space exploration and technology sector. The term “disruption” is one we now use to describe the process of overturning traditional, sometimes quasi-monopoly, “apple carts” and old, inefficient business models. This approach requires innovative thinking. And it’s becoming increasingly common, to the point we almost expect it.

For a couple of decades I’ve thought about what can possibly be the best, first step toward a robust regional transit system – one with a good, dedicated right-of-way backbone (rail or bus). For rail transit, that hasn’t been hard to figure out. There’s an existing freight rail branch line that connects the heart of Knoxville to Maryville and Alcoa. It runs within about a mile and a half of our airport, and it connects the two most populous counties in our metro area. And, the volume is down to one train a day in each direction on that line. It has the capacity to handle both the current freight traffic and rail transit. It’s the Norfolk Southern owned line (the K&A) that runs through the Worlds Fair Park, between downtown and the UT campus.



As We Drill Down, the Dream Begins to Look More and More Like Reality

In late September I attended a major conference in Denver that addresses rail transit, transit oriented development and livable communities. In early October, I attended the largest transit trade show in the nation, the APTA Expo. In both cases, I was able to reconnect with some of the many contacts and relationships I’ve established over the years. One in particular, turned out to be very important. Frank, who worked for Siemens Transportation Systems for many years, had retired from that job in 2012. He and I go way back, meeting in Knoxville, Sacramento and Dusseldorf to look at their vehicles being produced as well as Knoxville’s potential.

I told Frank that we’re looking at a window of opportunity that may or may not stay open for an extended time, and it seems like now is the time to seriously work toward putting something together if it’s going to happen. I reiterated the need to keep costs very low, and told him there’s not apparent way we can afford or justify buying new light rail vehicles (LRVs), one of the greatest single system costs. That’s when Frank told me about a possible opportunity to purchase used LRVs from MTS, the regional transit authority in San Diego.

U2 Light Rail Vehicles Secured for Knoxville (Photo Joe Hultquist)

Frank made inquiries in with MTS, and he and I met with some of their top management in San Diego the first week in December 2017. They had recently retired their first generation of LRVs, the Siemens-Duewag U2. They gave some to museums and sold some to Mendoza, Argentina. Since there hasn’t been a used LRV market in North America, they planned to scrap the remainder. I told them that we didn’t yet have a project, but I would be working with others to try to put something together. They agreed to entertain a tentative offer, based on our ability to put the project together. I offered them $10,000 per vehicle, and they accepted.

They liked the idea we presented, saying it’s similar to their first line to the border. Frank’s employer also liked the idea and subsequently agreed to purchase the vehicles on our behalf. Now, eighteen U2 light rail vehicles have been bought, moved, shrink-wrapped and stored in Miramar, CA. They’re sitting, waiting to be shipped to Knoxville when we’re ready. Let that sink in – for less than half a million dollars eighteen vehicles have been acquired for us that would cost $70 – 90 million new. Yes, they’re used, but they’re in excellent condition, and will be fully functional with a minimal amount of refurbishment.


Other Cost Savings

Light rail systems by definition run on an overhead power, or catenary, system. These six hundred volt DC systems require a transformer roughly every mile, and cost upwards of $1 million/mile. We are exploring alternatives for powering the vehicles, including battery power. Alternative power sources could significantly reduce the cost of powering the system.

Downtown Rail Bridge, Knoxville, September 2018 (Photo Joe Hultquist)

While the rail line is already there, it will have to be acquired and upgraded for passenger service. Since it’s mostly single track, passing sidings will have to be built at appropriate intervals. And, of course, stations will have to be planned and constructed. We’re confident we can keep those costs within reasonable parameters.


So, What Exactly Would This System Look Like? In Knoxville and Knox County?

This first light rail line would start in Knoxville’s Worlds Fair Park. The best location for the northern terminus station looks to be at the rest room and security office building in the park. There’s even an elevator and stair tower up to the Clinch Avenue Viaduct, which is critical for connecting to the downtown/campus shuttle. Covered platforms will have to be constructed, but other than that most of what’s needed is already there. That station connects us to downtown and the campus, and to ample, inexpensive parking in the area.

Track at the intersection of Hawthorne and Augusta, just off of Chapman Highway. Possible location of the South Waterfront Station (Photo Joe Hultquist)

As the line crosses the river, it enters the South Waterfront Redevelopment Area. Specifically, the part west of Chapman Highway. It curves away from the highway, along the base of the ridge that’s crowned with the Historic Fort Dickerson Park. Somewhere just after that curve will probably be a preferred location for the second station going south. It would serve what will become a dynamic, redeveloped south waterfront area. The presence of the rail transit service and station will dramatically accelerate and enhance development of that waterfront area.

The next logical station area will be in Vestal, possibly close to the historic Candoro Marble office building. A station there will provide a powerful stimulus for redevelopment, potentially transforming that area. In fact, all of the planning and placemaking efforts for Vestal to date, as good as they have been, have probably fallen far short of addressing the potential that will be released for the Vestal area by rail service and a new station.

Approximate location of a Vestal station, at the intersection of the line with Candora Street, between Ogle Avenue and Maryville Pike (Photo Joe Hultquist)

Approximate location of a Vestal station, at the intersection of the line with Candora Street, between Ogle Avenue and Maryville Pike (Photo Joe Hultquist)

Continuing further south, the line flows from Vestal into more rural South Knox County. It’s in that more rural area that significant parcels are located around the line providing opportunities for major greenfield developments. But with the rail line and future stations, those TOD (Transit Oriented Development) sites can become high quality, medium to high density mixed use developments around those future stations. These developments will provide a lot of housing capacity, not to mention a good mix of commercial and other non-residential uses, without creating as much sprawl and traffic congestion as traditional suburban single family home developments would cause. With the right mix, these individual station area developments can become destinations in themselves.


In Blount County?

The same kinds of opportunities exist in Blount County. There are several great potential TOD sites along the line, including two UT farms that could be converted to higher intensity uses such as satellite campuses. As the line approaches the former Alcoa, Inc. (now split into Alcoa Corp. and Arconic) South Plant site, it can branch off with new track to tie into the old West Plant site. That site is now being redeveloped into Springbrook Farms, which will essentially become the downtown the City of Alcoa never had. My grandfather supervised the construction of the town and the plants for the company, and was the first Alcoa City Manager, so I have a personal connection there.

Draft Springbrook Farms (new City of Alcoa “downtown”) plan

A line through, or adjacent to, Springbrook Farms would dramatically enhance and accelerate that development, and would tie it with UT and downtown Knoxville. It would also allow us to cross under the Alcoa Highway with the line, through the new interchange TDOT is building, and on to the McGee Tyson Airport terminal building, running behind and beside the Airport Hilton Hotel. The terminus would be where the current VIP lot is (I parked there when I was on City Council, so I’m familiar with that lot).


Beyond the Airport?

The rail line as it currently exists continues on into Maryville running more or less parallel to Hunt Road/Washington Street once it passes the plant sites. It currently terminates just before East Broadway in Maryville, but the rail bed continues beyond that point. The ties and rails were only removed in the last few years, and that stretch of line could be restored.

It’s not too much of a stretch to get the line all the way to Blount Memorial Hospital. And, there’s enough potential land available in the area to create some park-and-ride parking. It’s also theoritically possible to cross Washington Street and US 321 to get to Lamar Street and the downtown side of the Maryville College campus. That would put a station where it could serve the adjacent Clayton Center for the Performing Arts, the rest of the campus and downtown Maryville to boot. That extension would be more difficult and costly, but it might be achievable.


What About First Mile/Last Mile Connections?

On the Knoxville end, KAT and the UT transit system can provide a good bit of the first mile/last mile connections. Those systems can be tweaked and reshuffled to optimize connections and make the service as seamless as possible. We already have a start with the downtown shuttle (“Trolley”) and existing route buses, but there’s much room for improvement and enhancement.

On the Blount County side, it may be premature to try to put a fixed route bus circulator system in. For the interim, there appears to be significant potential utilizing Lyft Line and Uber Pool for transit-like first/last mile(s) connection. In fact, there are some transit systems that have struck deals with these two major rideshare companies to create “seamless” transit experiences, even to the point of handling the fares with one app. You get picked up at designated (in real time) “stops” and dropped off or picked up at a rail transit station. Why can’t this work in Maryville and Alcoa?


So, How Does This Grand Idea Benefit Me?

If you’re a commuter to UT or downtown Knoxville from Blount County, this rail service would give you the ability to avoid the ongoing congestion on Alcoa Highway. That congestion will continue until current and future highway upgrades are completed. No one can say exactly how long those construction projects will last, but it’s not a stretch to expect it to take twenty or even thirty years, by which time demand will have increased to the point that we could be back where we started (or worse) in terms of congestion. So, while avoiding congestion isn’t the only reason, it’s an important one for many people.

If you’re traveling by air, and don’t want to spend the money on parking at the airport, or taking a cab or Uber or Lyft the whole way (all expensive), a low cost rail pass may be just the ticket. For travelers flying in from out of town for conferences, conventions, business trips or just plain tourism, the connection to downtown (and its hotels and amenities) should be a major benefit.

U2 Light Rail Vehicles Secured for Knoxville (Photo Joe Hultquist)


Finally, And Most Importantly, How Do We Pay For It?

Simply put, the value capture approach involves structuring the deal so that a small percentage of the value of every new development that’s created along the line, around the new stations, is captured and put into the rail transit system to pay for it. We’re not talking about taxes being imposed involuntarily on disinterested parties. Instead, this will all happen by agreement between the parties involved.

If a developer or investor group wants to put together a development around a station (existing or proposed), they have to strike an agreement up front committing to putting the value capture mechanism in place. The reasoning is simple and transparent. The development opportunity wouldn’t exist without the rail transit line/service, and the stations that will be put in along that line. It’s one of the best, most easily defined examples of economic synergy on a local level. And, there’s ample evidence that it works.


In next weeks installment, we’ll look at where we go from here, and how to make it happen.


  1. Albert Pope says

    Interesting that I work with executives at Norfolk Southern (whom owns the track) and they say they have never heard of you or your plan (they laughed by the way). They say that there is currently freight being hauled on that line and they would not entertain light rail being run on that track. I remember meeting Joe when he was running for city council and he assured me that he was going to “force” NS to run trains on that track because it is abandonned…but it is not. There are 4 customers on that line and trains run daily. The NS interchanges with at least one customer (Arconic) that needs to have deliveries made in a timely manner to synch with their production line…has this been taken into consideration? Next point is that those old Metra cars were surplus because they are old and worn out. It will cost a lot of dollars to restore and maintain that equipment to meet modern standards. The FRA is the final word on all of this and they are hardcore. In regard to the old Metra cars being electric..there are no overhead electric lines currently on this line…the FRA has stringent regulations that determine how/where they can be built. They might not even allow electric lines on the 2 ancient river bridges on that line. Heck…the FRA might not approve those ancient wood deck, weight restricted briddges for passnger use at all. Furthermore electric lines of the style needed for these cars might not be compatible for use with the type/height of modern freight cars that customers on this line need. There has to be a certain height clearence…and the FRA would determine all of this. I think this is a poorly thought out dream and not a viable plan at all. Better idea…use electric buses…or natural gas buses…to make the trip on Alcoa Hwy. New improvements to Alcoa Hwy will be finished soon and make for a quicker trip then taking a train. The line from downtown Knoxville to Maryville is only 13 miles…hardly worth developing a rail line for…especially for a route that is not nearly as congested as others in Knoxville.
    Joe might remember my name because when I lived in his district I called him several times for constituent services but he never returned my calls…maybe my name is still on his list of calls to return?

    • I’m excited about this plan Knoxville maryville Alcoa I would ride I move away from Tennessee just to be in a town that has more public transit I would move back if Knoxville got a lightsail what about to strawberry plains there is alot of work out there and hope it goes to maryville too there is denso I would be so happy that is work I couldnt get to cause of no car

  2. Kathy Lovingood says

    I am very enthusiastic about your ideas as well as your initiatives. I am in Blount County and would enjoy going to Knoxville but Alcoa Highway is an obstacle to me. I would be pleased to help in any way I can. If there are tracks to Louisville, I know there is money in the town accounts. Louisville collects shares of Blount County taxes as well as for liquor and wine/beer sales but doesn’t provide services so there is usually two to three million in the accounts. This might justify its existence.

  3. This would be incredible! I hope this continues to develop. It sounds like it’s on the right track! 😉

  4. Not a bad plan. Would provide more people with the option of public transport.

  5. Kathy Lovingood says

    I have been involved in regional transportation planning of Knoxville in the past and was always frustrated that the city of Knoxville couldn’t see that the center had to be at the airport, not downtown. From the airport you can go to the park, to Oak Ridge as well as Knoxville. It makes sense for the airport to become the hub.

  6. Very well conceived and innovative proposal. Thanks for your hard work, Mr. Hultquist, and long term commitment to public transportation. Wouldn’t it be great to get ahead of the transportation needs curve for a change? And, even if some taxpayer funding were required, I would be willing to pay my part. Against all odds, I hope this dream becomes reality.

  7. Excellent plan. Perhaps a GoFundMe drive would help see how much support from potential users there is in the marketplace

  8. BOB RICHARDS says

    TVA needs to step up to the plate and pay for/provide the electric transformers that are needed every mile, not to mention they have the expertise and electrical engineers to help with the design, construction and project management for the installation of this system. Not to mention this would be another major consumer of electric power to add to their mix of customers.

  9. What if a route used the tracks that run parallel to Sevier Ave? I know that is planned to be a green-way but both could be possible and it would encourage both rail AND foot traffic in the area.
    Plus, it would help encourage movement from downtown and UT to Old Sevier for live/work/leisure and to Ijams, Suttree Landing, and the Urban Wilderness for outdoor activities without having to drive or walk.


    • Absolutely should run near the Kern’s building. I hope this can eventually run up an down, east to west on all four of our primary corridors… some form.

  10. Johnny Winkler says

    A long time ago,perhaps 20 plus years ago the Metro Pulse newspaper did a feature article about a rail plan from Knoxville to the Smoky Mountains. Think it was titled “Smoky Mountain Rail Plan”. A reprint of that article would be great if it could still be found.

  11. Johnny Winkler says

    How about exploring a light rail line on the former right of way of the Smoky Mountain RR from Vestal to Sevierville and Pigeon Forge? The cuts and fills constructed more than a hundred years ago are still there in many places. Perhaps Knox County residents would use a rail system to reach the many jobs in that area as well as people doing the tourist things.

  12. The Modern Gal says

    Wow. This is remarkable. And generally when you can prove one line to be successful, folks will be more supportive of future lines.

    I’m guessing this will be the topic of your final post, but what are the odds that all of the invested parties actually jump aboard?

  13. I would love, love, love this!!! I live in Maryville, but for 32 years, I worked at UT and drove Alcoa Hwy. every day. I dreamt all those years of getting on a train with my coffee and newspaper, and magically arriving at UT.
    Maryville/Alcoa has long been touted as an ideal retirement community, and it is, with the exception of public transportation. We have nothing. So, older folks who want to attend an event in Knoxville or visit a doctor at UT Hospital have to either pay a high price for UBER or drive Alcoa Hwy.
    Also, tons of UT students and employees could take advantage of light rail. It would need a stop at UT hospital, as well as the main campus, to support workers and patients.
    Downtown Knoxville hotels don’t even have a shuttle service to the airport. Imagine how much more attractive it would be for conventions and events, if light rail were available from the airport to downtown.
    I hope you will continue to vigorously pursue this idea!

  14. It’s interesting to me that people always get so excited about the possibility light rail when we already have bus routes that run all over the city. Is light rail the “acceptable” form of public transit for the more affluent, hip crowd?

    • Michael O'Malley says

      I agree that light rail is the more glamorous transit, often to the detriment of the existing bus lines (and improvements in bus services are often more cost-effective than rail). However, in this case, there currently isn’t any bus line that goes all the way out to the airport, and if there were, it would be subject to the same delays/traffic problems that drivers on Alcoa Hwy would experience. So I don’t think this project is so much an ignoring of existing transit as it is a valuable addition to and expansion of current services.

    • Good news, Joe Hultquist has written a series of three articles (with part 4 to come) that addresses your initial point!

    • The access to/from Blount county is the key for me. Considering that the Alcoa expansion has a cost of 333 million dollars (last time I looked), I know that we have the funds available for a project like this. Would TDOT cover some of these costs?

      Also, I’m worried that even after all the construction is done, Alcoa Hwy will be just as backed up as before. Just look at Hwy 66 into & out of Sevier County.

  15. gregory austin says

    Wonderful, well-researched follow-up article Thank you for your insight and positive working attitude. Good luck on your future efforts to bring this to light.

  16. We moved here from a small town in Virginia that had direct access to a train line through DC, Philly, NYC, Boston, so we were shocked to find out that the closest passenger train stop is in Georgia, especially when we can hear freight trains all hours of the day from our house. I hope this smaller route gets things rolling :).

  17. It sounds like the beginnings of a reasonable plan. The acquisition of used equipment, at such an advantageous price, is certainly fine news. Great job Joe Hultquist!

    The exceptionally high capital cost of such systems is just one of the many barriers. Right of way acquisition is another barrier, as Joe mentions.

    While a right of way exists it does not necessarily mean such right of way is available. Years ago, at a National Park planning meeting, a federal official ranked land ownership and control thusly: 1. God, 2. Railroads, 3. Federal Government, 4. State Government, 5. Regional Authorities, 6. Local Government.

    The point being Railroads have stronger property rights than even the Federally. Eminent domain be damned.

    Leases for track use likely could be crushing. Acquisition costs also likely would be very costly. Maintaince of track is extreamly expensive.

    Operating costs are also very high on such systems. Farebox revenues are generally not even adequate to recover operating costs. Such a rail operation would require substantial subsidies by taxpayers.

    Value capture would be an excellent and reasonable way to fund the proposed line. Unfortunately, two factors work against a successful VC strategy.

    The call in the article, and proposal outline above, calls for only a very modest VC recapture. Joe seems to acknowledge that it will be nearly politically impossible to levy a full recapture VC mechanism.

    Another issue with a VC tax is so much of the service area is already developed thus a VC attempt would have already missed that boat.

    An alternate power source for this line sounds very optimistic. Batteries would add substantial weight, fire concerns, and huge costs. Batteries might make overhead wires look like a bargain.

    All that said, how refreshing to see forward, outside the high-cost, transit box thinking. Joe Hiltquist has done his homework and is working hard to find a workable solution. No doubt we are all eager for his next article.

    I must caution, however, a history of bait and switch cost structure schemes are common in the public transit industry. Low cost rolling stock is acquired, excitement builds, resources are committed, costs skyrocket, and by the time things are finally ready to roll the original trams have rotted away and must be replaced by units costing tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.

    Let’s demand better outcomes in Knoxville.

  18. And add Amtrak service to other parts of the country while you ate at it! Why can’t we have rail service like other states?
    Congratulations on being proactive!

  19. Well this is certainly a nice surprise!! I thought this was just one of those hypothetical article series, but it turns out step one’s already complete with massive cost savings! Hopefully this will continue to get off the ground.

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