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VOL. 116 | NO. 199 | Monday, October 14, 2002

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TDOT releases study of statewide railway

Improved statewide rail would open travel options


The Daily News

Imagine a state in which people had an option, other than using roads, to travel from one end of the state to the other maybe by hopping a passenger train to ride from Memphis to Nashville.

Or, if businesses needed to ship product from West Tennessee to East Tennessee, loading it on a railcar rather than a truck.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation is imagining it, and just released a study indicating building a freight and passenger service line from Memphis to Bristol, Tenn., reveals cost benefits.

The big benefit would be easing interstate road congestion, TDOT officials said.

Most people have noticed the impact of freight on the interstate highway system with the high number of trucks, said Ben Smith, TDOT director of public transportation, rail and water division.

Large portions of our interstate system have 10,000 trucks a day on it.

TDOT anticipates congestion on Interstate 81 and Interstate 40 could get so heavy during the next 20 years that the four-lane system would need to be expanded to six or eight lanes.

Its essential we start looking now if some of that freight could be moved to the railroad systems, Smith said.

The centerpiece of the entire system would be building a direct freight and passenger connection from Memphis to Bristol.

The study examines a basic east-west alignment between Memphis and Knoxville through Nashville.

Rail construction wouldnt be a matter of laying down new track, but using much of what is already there by enhancing it, while building a few new sections, primarily 67 miles over the Cumberland plateau where there is no railroad at all, Smith said.

Rail already in use includes a publicly owned railroad from Nashville to Algood, the Norfolk Southern railroad from Oliver Springs to Knoxville and the CSXT line from Memphis to Nashville.

TDOT officials would like to convince freight shippers rail is a better option, but in order to do so, the railway system needs to show improvements.

We have to have higher speeds and better delivery times. That requires better infrastructure, Smith said.

While much of the railroad system is there, many enhancements are needed, such as track signs and signals, new elevations, faster lines, railcars and stations for passenger service.

The entire project would cost about $1.2 billion, Smith said.

While that sounds like a lot, upgrading lanes on I-81 and I-40 would exceed $2.4 billion, he said.

Not only could freight shippers benefit, but passengers could, too, officials said.

The study showed a passenger rail line with the greatest benefits would connect Louisville, Ky., to Chattanooga, but it would be difficult to build, because of the interstate coordination needed.

Second on the list was a Memphis to Nashville passenger line.

Smith said the study showed a cost benefit of $1.11 return for every $1 invested.

Estimated ridership was 114,800 people one way, per year.

The service would use the CSXT line, with many improvements needed for passenger travel such as stations along the route, new signalization and additional passenger cars.

If the state gained funding and a project moved smoothly, Smith said he could see the passenger line built in about five years.

If the entire Memphis to Bristol line fell into place, Smith estimated the project would take about 15 years to build.

One big issue with such a plan is the railroad project would use public funds to enhance some of the private railway lines, such as the CSXT and the Norfolk Southern Railroad, Smith said.

And, such a big change in public policy needs public backing, he said, which is why TDOT is conducting public hearings to gain feedback.

One such hearing is from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 12 at the Central Library, 3030 Poplar Ave.

Another detail affecting the plan occurs next summer when Congress considers reauthorizing the Federal Transportation Act, Smith said.

There is a lot of movement around the country to include more rail and freight consideration in how the act is structured and how funds are given out, he said.

Having a plan in place would help gain funds if Congress does throw support behind increasing rail transportation, Smith said.

While TDOT needs to convince freight shippers rail is a good way to ship, the trucking industry isnt sure shippers would opt for it.

Chris Burruss, Tennessee Trucking Association president and chief executive officer, said he wasnt familiar with TDOTs recent study, but has heard a lot of discussion of shifting transportation from road to rail.

I dont see how that could happen, Burruss said.

While shipping bulk items such as grain and coal make sense, he said, many businesses use trucks to ship items such as produce, because it is highly perishable.

Trucks can be used as a means of just in time delivery. Often, companies think of trucks as a mobile warehouse, getting product to a stores shelves just in time, instead of storing them in a warehouse, he said.

Rail, in my mind, is a 19th century technology trying to adapt to a 21st century economy, Burruss said.

PROPERTY SALES 79 321 2,586
MORTGAGES 90 426 3,033
BUILDING PERMITS 146 789 6,857
BANKRUPTCIES 36 212 1,999