What About Light Rail Transit?

Fort Worth Rail (photo from www.texrail.com)

*Editor’s Note: The following article is the first in a series dedicated to Light Rail Transit by guest writer Joe Hultquist. Please follow and share the series with others, as we hope to spur serious and informed local conversation about the topic. Mr. Hultquist served on Knoxville’s City Council from 2001 through 2009. He has dedicated himself, for more than two decades, to researching public transportation, particularly rail transit, and its impact on development patterns and transportation networks. He has developed relationships in the industry, in both the business and governmental sectors, that help inform his pragmatic, market-oriented advocacy.


Over the years, during a whole series of Knoxville-centric, as well as regional, visioning and planning efforts (Nine Counties One Vision, East Tennessee Quality Growth, Plan ET, The Big Table, etc.), the idea of rail transit has not only surfaced, but has often come to the forefront. But what does it really mean for a community to implement a rail transit strategy and system? What does it do for the people who live in an urban metro, and for those who come to visit? In a broader sense, how does it benefit the communities it serves? More importantly, perhaps, what are the underlying issues that might point us in that direction?

First, to take a step or two back, we all know that our lives are dependent on being able to move around, usually over a much greater distance than can be practically walked. Even those who live in downtowns like Knoxville’s have to be able to go to various places in our daily lives. Whether they’re places of employment, our homes, where we shop and go for a long list of necessary services, we need transportation. Car dependency has been the rule in Knoxville, as in most of the nation, for nearly a century. The same is true for a good bit of the rest of the world.

The problem, as we all know all too well, is that total dependency on personal cars can create some serious problems. Traffic congestion is probably the biggest single negative, but it’s not the only one.

Parking demand is another serious issue that we constantly face. Use of precious land for parking takes it away from other potentially more valuable, people-centered uses. According to various estimates, there are several parking spaces for every person in our country. One estimate has the number of surface lot parking spaces alone at eight hundred million.

Portland Light Rail (photo from trimet.org

That’s not including spaces in parking garages, which are very costly and still use valuable real estate, though not as much. For standard self-parking garages, 200-400 square feet of deck area is required for each space. Automated parking structures are more efficient, but they still require 200-250 square feet per space. All of this at a cost of $25 thousand or more per space.

And, surface parking creates heat islands that make our cities and suburbs hotter in the summer. Those parking lots are generally unpleasant places for human beings to be in, so they’re only people-friendly to the extent we can park in them at get quickly away from them.

Are there options? Well, transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft help in some ways, but they can’t fully address these problems, especially congestion. Whether you’re traveling in your own car or a TNC vehicle, you’re still taking up lane space on streets and highways, and contributing to congestion.

And, even though autonomous vehicles (AVs) are being touted as the answer to many problems, there’s little evidence that they will substantially reduce traffic congestion. In fact, they may actually make it worse in some situations. There are a great many unknowns, but as experience grows with AVs, it’s becoming more and more obvious they’re no panacea. The subject of AVs is huge, and really deserves a separate article to do it justice.

That gets us to public transit, which includes various flavors of bus and rail transit. Bus transit is critically important for getting people, especially those who have limited mobility options, in and out of neighborhoods, business districts and service institutions such as hospitals and clinics, among many other important destinations.

Music City Star (Photo Musiccitystar.com)

Good bus service is a wonderful thing to behold, but it’s challenging to implement unless the ridership is there to justify the investment. And the ridership doesn’t materialize without great service. It’s a bit of a Catch 22. And, when it comes to moving any distance, buses are actually slower than driving because (a) they get stuck in the same traffic congestion plaguing everyone else and (b) they have to make frequent stops.

For a truly effective regional transit system, dedicated rights-of-way (ROW) are needed. That can be done with either rail (commuter or light rail) or bus rapid transit (BRT). When a system requires dedicated ROW, that means expensive infrastructure located on valuable land that has to be acquired for that use, and therefore taken out of limited and valuable real estate inventory.

Rail transit, such as commuter rail like Nashville’s Music City Star, can be a workable solution for moving people from suburban areas to urban cores. It doesn’t work well if there are a lot of stops, as may be needed in urban and close-in suburban areas, because these heavy locomotive-pulled trainsets don’t start and stop quickly. Usually, commuter rail makes sense for longer runs, such as the Star’s Downtown Nashville to Lebanon run.

Light rail is another transit option that many cities and metro transit systems have implemented. It typically runs in dedicated rights of way, but can run in streets just like streetcars do in urban core areas. Light rail solves a lot of problems with its flexibility and efficiency. It can move passengers through dense areas, and also serve suburban areas (typically not much further than 20 miles). Starting/stopping performance is good, so stations can be close together when necessary.

Moving people is the primary function of light rail or any public transit system, but in order to understand the benefits and positive impact of rail transit (and BRT to some extent), the development that happens along the line has to be assessed. Sometimes called station area development, but more commonly known as transit oriented development (TOD), the real estate improvements that spring up along the lines are actually often the most important economic rationale.

Austin Rail Line (Photo from capmetro.org)

TODs, as they’re known, are evident around almost every rail transit system in the country. In fact, you can look at a aerial or satellite photo of the Washington, DC metro area and spot where the underground portions of the METRO heavy rail system runs based on the density of development that has occurred around the stations.

The same is true of light rail systems. Charlotte’s is one of the closest examples. The LYNX light rail system that CATS operates has recently opened their second line, which runs from downtown (“Uptown”) Charlotte northeast to Davidson and the UNC Charlotte campus.

As with the first LYNX Blue line, which runs south to the station adjacent to perimeter Interstate 485, the new line has already become a development magnet. Fairly dense, mixed use developments began to spring up around the planned station areas while the line was under construction. And, as with the south leg of the line, development around the stations will continue at a robust pace for the foreseeable future, as long as the economy allows development of any sort. You can read more about LYNX Blue Line TOD here, here, here and here.

This kind of TOD has happened everywhere modern light rail lines have been built. Cities like San Diego, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, St. Louis, Dallas/Fort Worth, Phoenix, Houston, Durham County/Orange County, NC, Denver, Norfolk, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Austin have all built (or are planning to build, as is the case of the Triangle area) light rail transit systems. In most cases, they’ve seen major TOD investment happen around their lines. These are actually the next chapter in the story of passenger rail and rail transit history in our county. For a good historical synopsis of how we got to where we are today, this article is a good read.

As we prepare for a future that will undoubtedly encompass major population and employment growth, and the development that must necessarily follow, we will have to decide how we’re going to prepare for that growth, to the degree we do prepare. Few will argue that we shouldn’t be more proactive in that preparation than our neighbors in Atlanta and Nashville have been.

We’re only beginning to see the sprawl and resultant congestion that typically follow growth, but seriously considering what’s ahead and trying to prepare for that future should be at the top of our priority list in the greater Knoxville area. Developing a robust and effective (meaning popular) public transit system, potentially incorporating rail as well as bus technology, should be a key consideration in that planning and preparation effort.

But what are the obstacles to developing such a system? We’ll look at those in the next installment of the series.


  1. This excellent article reviews the Nashville transit referendum and complexities involved in voters overwhelming rejecting the plan.

    Issues such as a failure to engage in “Value Capture”, the role of a prominent African American Democrat operative in helping lead voter opposition, and a reminder light rail refers to the light passenger loads it is capable of carrying.

    A really instructive read no matter which side of the referendum you were on:


  2. In today’s transit news we see METRO DC is not primarily a transit endeavor. It is primarily a jobs program:


  3. Leland Wykoff says

    Expensive, limited service, transfers public treasury wealth to developers, and fails to move masses of people:


    • Aren’t you just stubbornly against any kind of development in Knoxville though?

    • Leland Wykoff says

      Jeremy and Dave feel the need to name call rather than discuss the problems associated with light rail.

      Other commenters have provided information about the obscene costs per mile of light rail–$125 million to $240 million per mile or approximately 15 times more than BRT. Dave and Jeremy have added nothing to that conversation.

      Nashville voters just trounced an attempt to spend recklessly on light rail and expensive tunneling deep under downtown.

      Those in the poorest neighborhoods voted by the largest margins to defeat the transit proposal. That the users of public transit voted against transit expansion speaks loudly.

      Transit users know better than anyone it is not a bargain. They want less of it. Jeremy and Dave should take note.

      • Leland, before you go spreading ‘fake news’… yes, Nashville trounced an attempt to bring light rail and BRT to the city, but where are you getting your information that “the poorest neighborhoods voted by the largest margins to defeat the transit proposal”? In every news article I’ve read, its the wealthy conservatives who were most passionately against mass transit because (hear-say) they felt it connected their wealthy neighborhoods to these ‘poor’ neighborhoods you speak of, and for another (as reported by multiple reports) because they felt that it didn’t benefit them out in the suburbs.
        Additionally, it was largely anti-transit groups like “NoTax4Tracks” and the Koch brothers’ “Americans for Prosperity” that spearheaded the effort to overturn the plan. NoTax4Tracks is funded by wealthy conservative donors (*1) and the Koch brothers are “major producer(s) of gasoline and asphalt, and also makes seatbelts, tires and other automotive parts” (*2).
        So before you spread this perception that ‘the mass transit users know what they want, and they don’t want light rail or BRT’ please back yourself up with some hard facts, because from my point of view it’s the wealthy conservatives who overthrew Nashville’s plan – those who have never ridden a bus or are more concerned with their personal assets in the auto-industry than the future of the city they live in.
        https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2018/05/01/nashville-transit-vote-davidson-county-mass-transit/564991002/ – *1
        https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/19/climate/koch-brothers-public-transit.html – *2

      • Neither of us called you names. We just pointed out the fact that you seem to long for the 90’w when Market Square was empty and antique stores lined Gay Street.

  4. Law of unintended consequences: when you spend money on expanded highways or light rail, you are encouraging people to sprawl farther and make longer commutes. Traffic congestion is a useful feedback mechanism that penalizes people for making bad decisions about living far away from work.

    • Allow traffic congestion to continue to grow to “punish” people for living in the burbs?! That’s absurd. People should be able to live wherever they want and have quicker, safer and cleaner (environment) ways to get to/from anywhere in town (and outside the state, as well). One of the main reasons people live in the suburbs is housing prices/taxes are lower as compared to homes/apts,condos in urban neighborhoods. The exception would be subsidized housing, of course. I suppose you could argue that access to light rail might make them less inclined to move into the city. But like I said, the more important reason they don’t is cost of living — not to mention love of space and conveniences.

      • People are more than welcome to live wherever they would like, as long as they are willing to pay the costs. Unfortunately, the suburban model is a Ponzi scheme that drains money from financially productive city centers to subsidize that low cost of living. For example, one section of West Moreland Hills with 78 households is served by 1.25 miles of publicly maintained roads. Those homes pay on average $3,000/yr in city taxes. That’s $234,000/yr total. The 2018 city budget allocated 15% of funds to capital improvements. So, by those numbers the good folks of West Moreland Hills are paying about $35,000/yr (15% of $234,000) towards maintaining/improving all of the roads in Knoxville that they use. Repaving a 2 lane road costs approximately $1 million/mile. So, to pay off the 1.25 miles of road that only access those 78 houses, at $35,000/yr, it will to take more than 35 years of property taxes, if you don’t pay for any other roads that they use. The average life cycle of an asphalt road is 15 years. 35 years to pay off a road that lasts 15 years. I think they call that being upside down.

    • The Modern Gal says

      Some people can’t afford to live near their place of employment.

  5. BTR would work great if they actually have dedicated lanes to BTR. Many cities attempted this and have the BRT mixed in with regular traffic and then wonder why it failed. I took a quick look at the Indy site for their BRT and that looks like a proper BRT. This could work in Knoxville if implemented this way. The main corridors of Knoxville need to be the focus (Chapman Hwy, Broadway/Maynardville Pike, Kingston Pike, Magnolia, and Clinton Hwy) of the BRT and then have regular buses on secondary routes to connect to the BRT.

  6. I asked a friend of mine that works in the transportation industry in DC about this and he send back some interesting #’s. “The just-finished Charlotte light rail extension cost $125 million per mile. The new extension in Portland OR was $204m per mile,. The proposed new one in Durham NC will cost $139m per mile. BRT costs 10-15 times less – they just signed a contract for a new system in Indianapolis for $7.4 million per mile, Lansing MI just built one for under $15 million per mile, Pittsburgh is planning one for $13 million per mile.”

  7. John Winbigler says

    The bus goes no farther than the Social Security office, and does not go to the airport, let alone Alcoa and Maryville. Light rail is increasingly needed there as Alcoa Highway becomes more and more congested.

    • Not to mention that the bus doesn’t go to any DMV that will issue new license or ID’s. The ones on the bus line are only for renewals. As someone that moved to town just after that change, plus voter ID laws, it was nearly impossible to find time off work and transportation to get out to Strawberry Plains or Alcoa to even get a simple state ID. Knoxville’s public transit just hasn’t kept up with the times, or the city’s size.

  8. Thank you Alan for providing a platform for Joe Hultquist to share his analysis of a sadly overlooked but viable alternative transportation solution: light or commuter rail. As traffic congestion and accidents increase on America’s overcrowded deteriorating highways, it’s not just a smart idea for Knoxville and East Tn., but throughout the USA. Btw: you can add Orlando and Albuquerque to the list of cities where commuter rail has already been successful. Not to mention most European countries and China/Japan. I know Joe has been studying and promoting the merits of train transport for many years in the face of mostly uninformed opposition. And Hultquist recently appealed to city leaders to invest in light rail between McGhee Tyson airport and downtown. IF residents voiced their support of the idea to co-workers, friends and most importantly, city leaders, I believe we could make it a reality! I talked to the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Advisory Panel chairman about the idea of utilizing our railroad tracks (not only for local travel but also interstate connection) several years ago when they gave recommendations for how we might improve our community. Leigh Ferguson said the panel seriously considered advising rail use in Knoxville but worried about TDOT’s opposition. Ferguson told me he is an enthusiastic train rider between his New Orleans home and Birmingham. If there was ever a “bandwagon” to hop on in the 21st century, I believe it’s rail transit!

  9. Good introductory piece, Joe. This subject is important to me, for several reasons. I’ll assume your subsequent entries will touch upon the population density required to make Light Rail economically feasible, the support (or lack of it, depending where you live in the U.S.) at the statehouse level and the prevailing attitudes of citizenry about spending money upfront to achieve a viable solution to the traffic woes in a given region, of which they daily complain. I call that last concern the Legacy aspect. It can sometimes prove the most difficult obstacle to overcome.

  10. As far as I know, the bus system doesn’t even run out to Turkey Creek, much less any outlying Metro Knoxville cities. Extending the bus system a bit would be a good start. A light rail system would also help.

    • The Modern Gal says

      I agree, wholeheartedly. I’d love for light rail, but would settle (for now) with an express bus to Cedar Bluff and/or Turkey Creek and maybe some dedicated bus lanes and more bike infrastructure.

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