Light Rail for the Knox-Blount Corridor: What’s next?

Alcoa Highway construction at Montlake Drive (Photo by Joe Hultquist)

Ed. Note: This is the final installment of a four part series by Joe Hultquist. You can find the other installments here: 1st, 2nd, 3rd.

 

The three previous articles in this series on light rail transit for the Knoxville area have presented the background, general challenges and the proposed plan. Now, the question that seems to be in the forefront is: What’s next? Where do we go from here? One way to address that question is to expand it. We should ask: What will success look like, and how will we achieve that success? And, related to that: Who will benefit, and how?

 

Envisioning Success

In thinking about making this project successful, we have to establish a clear context. One element of that is being very proactive in preparing for the future. As was stated in a previous article, I doubt if anyone in our metro area wants us to find ourselves in the predicament currently facing the greater Nashville area. The common sentiment there is, we should have done something twenty years ago. So, making wise decisions, and acting on a plan while we have the luxury of not being under the gun, is surely desirable.

Potential location of the Vestal station in the Background, Foreground site of Vestival (Photo by Joe Hultquist)

Success in this case should mean not only adoption of the plan as it exists in embryonic form, but commitment on the part of everyone who has a say, and the ability to help make it happen, to doing just that – help make it happen. Working together in Knox and Blount Counties, people in leadership roles of every flavor can put their shoulders to the load and move it forward.

In order to do that, though, all of the folks who can potentially play a role have to not only understand but own the vision and the plan. As I said in the previous article, it won’t be solely top down, or bottom up, but those and more (from inside out).  That means a lot of people moving from what they’ve known to what they can imagine and then accomplish. But, in order for people from all walks of life to engage, they have to know why it’s important, and how it benefits them as well as the community.

 

Who Benefits?

The benefits will accrue first to those most closely linked to the Knox-Blount corridor. Everyone who drives into Knoxville from Blount County will benefit, because the rail transit system will take drivers off of the highways (especially Alcoa Highway), thereby reducing congestion. That includes students, faculty and staff at the University of Tennessee. Also, those who commute in the other direction benefit for the same reasons.

Major destinations like UT benefit because they don’t have to provide as much costly parking. Also, UT could benefit in the future by developing a satellite campus on their Singleton Station Road farm, or even on their Government Farm Road farm. The rail line we’re proposing to use runs through the former farm, and along the side of the latter.

Property off Maryville Pike, Recently Purchased for Development, Backs Up to the Rail Line (Photo by Joe Hultquist)

Assuming we’re successful in connecting to McGee Tyson Airport, travelers will benefit. Many locals who are outbound will have a great alternative to expensive parking tab at the airport, or an expensive Uber/Lyft ride to get there and back. Visitors to Knoxville will discover a welcome alternative for getting to downtown Knoxville, and the hotels and convention facilities that serve many of them will benefit as well due to the increased focus it will bring to downtown as a destination.

Though the airport generates a large amount of revenue from parking, the cost of building new garages is high, and the land to build them is limited. And, it’s just good customer service to be able to offer attractive alternatives to driving/car rental (for visitors) or cab/rideshare. It enhances the customer experience, as they say, and encourages future use of the facilities. Cab companies and Uber/Lyft drivers loose a little business, as do rental car companies, but the benefits are worth the trade-offs.

Rail line’s trestle over Little River in Blount County, Hill In background is part of the Singleton Station Road UT farm (Photo by Joe Hultquist)

Anyone who lives in the corridor, and even in the greater metro, will benefit because their housing options will expand due to the added TOD-type developments the line will generate. More housing stock for our region means more choices and, generally, lower housing costs as supply increases in relation to demand. Those developments will also create more opportunities for retail businesses, restaurants and other commercial attractions, which benefit everyone.

Developers will benefit, especially those who have learned how to put together mixed use developments. Both mixed use projects and the developers who know how to build them are becoming more common in our area. TOD (transit oriented development) opportunities are a good fit for that kind of developer. As stated in the previous article, our financial model for this rail transit project ties the funding of the rail project to the developments it engenders. And, in the unlikely chance that our home-grown developers aren’t up to the task, there are many good developers in our part of the country who understand TOD and do a great job with it.

Land Owned by Arconic, Rail Line on Right (Obscured), Potential development site (Photo by Joe Hultquist)

State and local governments will also benefit. TDOT will benefit because they won’t have to massively subsidize it with state and federal dollars (which they control), as has been the case in many parts of the country. Local governments will benefit for the same reason, but also because they will have more compact developments that generate taxes at a higher rate per acre and per local government dollars spent on services and infrastructure. Simply put, denser, more compact development, especially mixed use development, pays for itself in tax revenue generated. Sprawling, single family residential development generally doesn’t.

On top of that, TDOT will benefit because they won’t have to build as many highway lane miles (increasingly difficult to do) to serve the region and support population and economic growth. The system will also act as a traffic mitigation measure during construction on Alcoa Highway. That may seem at first blush like a short term benefit, but in reality it could be important for twenty years or more. Alcoa Highway improvements are being done in phases, all of which have to be funded by the legislature in our state’s pay-as-you-go process. All of those improvements on the Alcoa Highway could easily stretch out two decades or longer. And, given increasing demand, by the time TDOT is done with all of those improvements, they may not be adequate to meet that future demand.

Springbrook Farms Redevelopment Site, New Tesla Drive.(Photo by Joe Hultquist)

Local employers large and small will benefit as well. Right now, Blount County is job rich. They need a skilled workforce, and as a county they’re struggling to provide those skilled workers. That means one of two things are necessary to address that demand. Either people need to commute into Blount County to fill those jobs, or they need to move there close to the places of employment. The impacts of commuting have already been covered, but the lack of housing in Blount County hasn’t in this article. Again, development generated along the rail line helps meet that demand either directly, or by relieving pressure on other housing stock.

And last, but certainly not least, Norfolk Southern Railroad (NS) will benefit. They will be freed from the costs of maintaining the line, and carrying the legal liability of it. Those costs will be shifted to a public-private partnership structure. NS will still be able to operate on it at night, delivering freight to the few customers on the line, running the one train a day each way they’ve been running for several years now. From a business standpoint, maintaining or increasing revenue while decreasing costs is what it’s all about.

 

What Needs To Be Done Next, And Who Needs To Do It?

Everyone I’ve mentioned so far in this article can play a role in making this vision a reality. I say that, not expecting everyone to step up for altruistic reasons, but instead anticipating them operating in their own enlightened self interest. Not only will this project be good for everyone generally, it will be good for all of those mentioned specifically. And that’s how we will move forward and bring this great vision to reality.

Ultimately, the private sector will have to drive it. Investors and developers will have to step forward and underwrite both the rail operation and the related station area developments (TODs). This will likely take the form of public-private partnerships (P3s). A Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) will probably be created, but it will need to partner with the private sector to make this project a reality. Private capital will flow to it as long as there’s a clear pathway to profitability.

UT farm at Singleton Station Road (Photo by Joe Hultquist)

One significant enhancement of that potential for profitability is the Knox and Blount County Opportunity Zones. The majority of the rail line and the properties it will serve lie within one of those two Opportunity Zones. Under the federal tax bill that was passed at the end of last year, a bipartisan amendment created these Opportunity Zones. What they do, in essence, is provide an opportunity for “
patient capital” (investment capital that can be left in an investment for ten years or more) to be invested in real estate or business investments. Once the investment has been in place for ten years, there are no capital gains taxes. That makes investment in this corridor significantly more attractive.

Local and state governments can help without putting the taxpayers on the hook for massive subsidies, which aren’t required in this model. Their role is to help seed the process, and invest public resources is limited but strategic ways. That includes up-front planning. It may also include the local governments doing the kinds of things they typically do to encourage development, including providing infrastructure such as utilities and roads to the developments (in this case, to TODs). The specifics of roles there have yet to be determined, but just as with the private sector, it’s based on return on investment (ROI).

Business leadership can play a major role as we move forward. That includes Chambers of Commerce. These business interests will be well served by a successful system of this kind. It will help increase tourism, because it will add to the attractiveness of Knoxville and the region as a destination. It will make our region more attractive to both employers and potential employees (especially millennials). So, involvement of businesses and business leaders is, once again, more than altruistic. It’s in their self interest, and once they’ve seen the full picture and understand that it’s very doable, they can get behind it.

UT farm off Government Farm Road, which intersects with Governor John Sevier Highway. The rail line runs approximately through the vertical center of the photo (Photo by Joe Hultquist)

TYS Airport Terminal building at the VIP Lot, Proposed Airport Terminal Station Location (Photo by Joe Hultquist)

 

What Can You And I Do?

Big ideas and big visions require support from a lot of people from different segments of our populace. If you would like to see this vision become a reality, there is undoubtedly a role you can play. We have established the Transit Alliance of East Tennessee (TAET), a non-profit organization, to drive this process and work toward establishing the Knox-Blount light rail transit service as the first step toward a robust, regional public transit system.

We’re still a young organization, the non-profit version of a business startup, but we have a solid plan. TAET is one leg of a three-legged stool (non-profit, RTA and P3). We are ready for others to get involved and help make this wonderful idea a reality. We will welcome your involvement and support, and there are many opportunities. If you would like to help, you can contact me at joe.hultquist@transit-et.org.

Comments

  1. Dee Pierce says:

    Given increasing traffic congestion, accidents and pollution, I’ve wondered for a long time why government, the public and private sector hasn’t shown more interest in passenger rail throughout the USA. After all, with over 200,000 kilometers of railroad paths, we have twice as many railway lines as other large countries such as Russia, China, India and Canada. But those countries are light years ahead of us when it comes to the number of passengers they transport and train technology. And I think it’s one aspect of their infrastructure and culture which we should aspire to imitate. Joe Hultquist’s extensive study of light rail and development of a viable plan for the Alcoa Hwy corridor gives me hope that we could do our small part to turn the American trajectory. In addition to spreading the word and urging our city leaders/neighbors to seriously consider the project’s many benefits, it sounds like those who support the idea should consider joining the newly formed Transit Alliance of East Tennessee (TAET) to learn how we might offer more constructive help.

  2. I think a light-rail is an excellent idea! I lived in Nashville before the big “boom”, but now that city is just impossible to drive and yes, they are playing catch up big-time (as they have been for quite some time). I’ve been thinking for years, that we will “boom” similarly to Nashville – so we best get the infrastructure in place before it does!

    Alcoa to downtown would be absolutely great. I would also like to see a West Knoxville to downtown light-rail, to lighten the traffic on I-40. Or at the very least, an alternate truck route (bypass). Those trucks are so dangerous on I-40, usually speeding and very aggressive in their driving through our city. As a main truck transport corridor across the lower US, it would sure make a positive impact on those of us who live and drive here.

    I believe public transportation is essential in our City. The best, most thoughtfully developed cities in the nation utilize it and so should we!

    Thanks for the informative articles!

  3. I believe in a strong vision like this for our region. Too often, we place catch-up, as Nashville is attempting to do (referenced in this article). I am behind this. Happy to offer 1-day driving the proposed route and doing additional landscape photography, if/when that would benefit the effort.

  4. Joe Hultquist says:

    As the author of this series, this is the first time I’ve weighed in on the comments. Alan has a much better feel for the number of comments vs. the number of readers. I’ve enjoyed all of the comments, including those for this 4th article.

    Gregory Austin, your interest in investing and your cautious approach are both very much appreciated on my part. We don’t know at this point if there will be an opportunity for small investors of “patient capital”, but I’m hopeful that can be a part of the mix. It means a lot for people to be able to support financially as well as other ways. Where one’s treasure is invested is where their heart is. Under the Opportunity Zone program, one or more Opportunity Funds can be structured. The rules allow those funds to have multiple investors, and as far as I know, there are no legal limits on the number of investors. There may be SEC rules that govern there, as well as IRS rules, but that remains to be determined.

    Concerning response to the articles, comments aren’t the only measure. I can already say that, since the last article (which included my E-mail address) was published, there have been some strong responses. I’ve had one individual offer to help with website development, and another offer drone videography of the line and TOD opportunity areas. Both of those services are ones we’ve greatly needed. That kind of support makes a tremendous difference.

    So, keep commenting, but please don’t be shy about getting in touch and starting a conversation on how you might engage to help bring the vision to full reality.

    Also, Jeremy, getting “city/county/powers-that-be” on board is critical, and that’s where we’re spending a great deal of time and energy right now. Given human nature in general, and the nature of leadership in our area, that’s not an easy challenge to tackle, but it’s critical. It’s a complex dance, and it’s just too early to talk about it at this point. When we have something significant to report in that area, I’m confident Alan will give us the opportunity to share the news.

    • I figured that would be a challenge. I was just answering Jim-Joe’s question about the lack of comments with my best guess.

  5. gregory austin says:

    I read all of the articles and was impressed by the fact finding and the explanations offered. The last article mentioned public financial support. I am interested in investing but would need more information as to the safety of said investment and how long (ten years ?) before I would possibly see return, even if it were a slight one. I think others,like me, do not want to be duped. I would be highly interested in a small long term investment to help in bringing this project to light.

  6. Rebekah Lockwood says:

    I had no idea the plan was in existence! Very exciting! I hate Alcoa Hwy. I would love to ride a rail from downtown to the airport! I need to read the other parts to this series. Excellent!

  7. How strange! Here it is 10:30 pm and there’s only one single comment to this final — and perhaps most important — part of the series. This compares to Part 1 – 22 comments, Part 2 – 9 comments, and Part 3 – 20 comments, and most of those comments were thoughtful, frank, and very constructive and/or informative. And now we have a specific plan proposed, explained in detail, and a challenge to get involved, but only one person has voiced interest. Not sure what to make of this lack of even confidence and moral support at this critical stage.

    • I think it was because Part 3 mentioned that they actually owned the rail cars. Which was a large surprise. I was expecting this part to mention that the city/county/powers that be are all on board.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      It is always interesting for me to see readership numbers and comment numbers. They don’t always track each other. This series had solid, but not spectacular readership, but an unusual amount of comments on the previous articles. The final article had almost identical readership, but few comments. What does it mean? I am clueless.

  8. Simply excellent, a well conceived and viable proposal. Thanks for the educational introduction to the concept and the hard work you have put in to make this possible, if only there is a will.

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