How About Light Rail for Knoxville?

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