Light rail talk in Blount

CAPPE meeting explores transportation options

Nina Gregg addresses the audience gathered at the Blount County Public Library Sharon Lawson Room for the annual meeting of Citizen’s Against Pellissippi Parkway Extension.

Nina Gregg addresses the audience gathered at the Blount County Public Library Sharon Lawson Room for the annual meeting of Citizen’s Against Pellissippi Parkway Extension.

Mike Cook shares his thoughts during the Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension annual meeting.

Mike Cook shares his thoughts during the Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension annual meeting.

Joe Hultquist, interim executive director with East Tennessee Quality Growth, Inc., tells members of CAPPE about studies on smart growth.

Joe Hultquist, interim executive director with East Tennessee Quality Growth, Inc., tells members of CAPPE about studies on smart growth.

Imagine a train line from Knoxville to Blount County, carrying people from the airport and the new Alcoa downtown center to Knoxville in a matter of minutes.

That’s a vision former Knoxville city councilman Joe Hultquist painted for members of the Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension during their meeting on Feb. 22.

Hultquist, interim executive director of East Tennessee Quality Growth, Inc., gave a presentation entitled “The Knoxville Regional Rail Transit Opportunity” and explained how a rail line could be created using the former Norfolk Southern line from Knoxville to Blount County. “I think it is a potential opportunity,” Hultquist said. “And we’ve got lots of opportunity. Development will be influenced by the transportation systems networks we build.”

Hultquist said currently the vans driven by East Tennessee Human Resources Agency are the only public transportation outside Knoxville. “One of the things we have not seen in our region is anything resembling a robust regional transportation system,” he said.

The former Knoxville city councilman said that in 2007, the city of Charlotte cut the ribbon on a new light rail system, but it came with a hefty price tag. “It’s a top-notch system, and it’s also very expensive - $40 million to $70 million a mile,” he said. “That’s a big ticket investment. SmartFix 40 cost $110 million to $120 million.”

Hultquist, a Maryville native, suggested using existing freight line tracks such as the Norfolk-Southern line from Knoxville to Blount County. “I believe it has the potential to be our first light rail line,” he said. “The idea is to have rail access to the airport. We can’t justify that alone, but if we tie it into a major development, all this begins to make sense.”

Hultquist suggested a variety of approaches that could be considered. One idea, using a hybrid-diesel powered electric rail car would cost a total of $41 million with about $2.6 million in annual maintenance.

Wherever the light rail stops are situated are points that become ripe for development, said Hultquist. “Development in Charlotte happened where stations were going to be,” he said.

Hultquist said that in the areas where stops were planned or were already in place in Charlotte saw growth. “They hit $1.5 billion in development,” he said. “It has a huge impact.”

People are becoming interested in modes of transportation other than automobiles, said Hultquist, because many people are coming out of college without the desire to move to the suburbs. In other cases, older couples are ready to move back to the city after raising children. “There are a lot of different dynamics at work,” he said.

Hultquist said developers aren’t the only individuals interested in this plan. “The airport authority is very interested,” he said. “The airport authority would like to see this happen.”

Hultquist, one of the organizers of the Plain Talk on Quality Growth forum that was held in March of 2007, said the next forum will be on Sept. 29. “It exceeded our expectations in 2007. We wanted 400 participants and got 700. It was a homerun,” he said. “Then we decided rather than create another conference, we would create a non-profit. We were very methodical in putting together an organization in a 16-county region.”

After about a year in which he served as president/chair, he got the chance to lead the organization from a paid position, and they hired him as interim director.

The organization has two key projects: organizing the Plain Talk on Quality Growth event and acting an advisor to communities and municipalities with regard to growth. “We assist local government, giving them the tools to help promote quality growth in their community,” he said. “I think it is timely. Even in a recession, you have to address growth-related issues. Now is the time to plan for growth.”

Hultquist has been interested in quality growth for many years. In March 1999, he gathered with other people interested in developing a regional visioning process. From that meeting, the Initiating Committee for Nine Counties One Vision (9C1V) evolved. Hultquist led the 9C1V outreach effort and has served continually on the 9C1V board of directors.

Approximately 30 people attended the CAPPE annual meeting.

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