The Oak Ridge City Council on Monday will consider a $1.5 million contract with the Tennessee Department of Transportation that would allow a former railroad to be converted into a greenway.
The so-called Rails to Trails project would convert about 4.85 miles of unused CSX railroad into a pedestrian and bicycle trail.
The former railroad starts at Elza Gate Park at Melton Lake Drive in east Oak Ridge, runs past the Emory Heights neighborhood and Jefferson Middle School, crosses Emory Valley Road near Hank’s Market, and then continues through the Hendrix Creek neighborhood along Lafayette Drive before ending near South Illinois Avenue, Scarboro Road, and the Y-12 National Security Complex.
The Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) approved $1.224 million for the project in October 2016 through the Transportation Alternative Program, or TAP. There is a local match of $306,000. The combined funding from the TAP award and the local match is $1.53 million.
In an interview after the grant was awarded, Ellen Zavisca, senior transportation planner for the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, said it’s federal funds disbursed in the area specifically for projects that provide safe places for bicycle and pedestrian projects.
Most rail lines in the area are still active, Zavisca said.
“There aren’t a lot of opportunities,” she said.
In the case of the Oak Ridge grant, it helps that there are shopping centers and neighborhoods near where the trail will be, and people won’t have to get into their cars for every trip, Zavisca said.
“We’re looking for projects that are going to provide day-to-day transportation for people,” she said.
The TAP grant was awarded by the TPO, but it’s actually a Tennessee Department of Transportation grant, Oak Ridge Recreation and Parks Department Director Jon Hetrick said in June.
The Rails to Trails project would be phased in over several years, and construction of the rail/trail would also occur in phases, Oak Ridge Community Development Director Kathryn G. Baldwin said in a July 5 memo to City Manager Mark S. Watson.
The TAP award allows the city to start a master plan and engineering and design efforts, Baldwin said. The master plan will examine connections to residential, commercial, and workforce centers, she said. The engineering and design work will provide firm construction costs and a phasing schedule, Baldwin said. The funding estimate could include information on actual construction costs and for various trail improvements such as trail heads, benches, water fountains, and bathroom facilities.
The work is being funded with 80 percent federal funds and the 20 percent local match.
Requests to acquire the property and for construction money will come later, Baldwin said.
“The TPO (Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization) anticipates and supports that additional funds will be necessary to move the project along to full completion,” she said. “Because the current programmed amount will not cover the entire project cost, the master plan will be used to leverage purchase and construction monies from various sources including federal highway, Healthy Design opportunities, and private funding.”
Baldwin said that there will probably be at least three construction phases: Elza Gate to Jefferson Middle School, JMS to Hendrix Creek, and Hendrix Creek to Y-12 at Union Valley Road.
“Funds will need to be obtained in future years to cover construction costs and may be done for individual phases,” Baldwin said. “Lengthening the timeframe for project construction will allow implementation over several years, which may lessen the impact of budgetary constraints.”
She said the project would serve several purposes, “the most obvious being the expansion of our greenway network.” It would be significant because it would provide an alternative transportation method that could replace some vehicle trips, Baldwin said.
“The location of the trail through the heart of the eastern side of Oak Ridge will afford easy access from adjacent neighborhoods, including Emory Heights, Hendrix Creek, and the Woodland neighborhoods in addition to Bristol Park, British Woods, and Tara Hills apartment complexes,” Baldwin said. “This facility will allow residents to bike, run, or walk to commercial areas, employment centers, and schools including Jefferson Middle and Woodland Elementary in a protected off-road path. In addition, valuable missing pedestrian links adjacent to Lafayette will be connected.”
Baldwin included background on the rail line in her memo to Watson. The rail line was originally built by the Atomic Energy Commission (now known as the U.S. Department of Energy) during the 1940s. DOE transferred ownership of the rail line to the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (now CSX) in June 1962. The rail line was used by public and private companies within Oak Ridge.
But due to declining use, CSX in 2012 petitioned the Surface Transportation Board to discontinue service over the 4.85-mile line. The request was approved, but it does not constitute “abandonment” of the rail line, Baldwin said. That will require a separate action.
Baldwin has previously said that the new greenway would need to be integrated into adjacent neighborhoods, and upgrades could be required at intersections with traffic signals. There could be trailheads at Elza Gate Park and in Hendrix Creek, near the Woodland neighborhood. There is a question about how those who would use the trail would cross the busy intersection at South Illinois Avenue and Scarboro Road/Lafayette Drive, including those commuting to work at Y-12.
There are other neighborhoods that would be close to the converted railway, including Briarcliff.
The total cost of the project isn’t known yet. Earlier this year, Baldwin said some private funds or additional grants could be required.
The former railway property is still owned by CSX. A sale price is not yet clear.
In June, Hetrick said the last two-year CSX appraisal has expired. That appraisal was for a little more than $1.5 million, Hetrick said. He said CSX would need to do a re-appraisal, and then the city will have to negotiate with CSX.
Tracks and ties would still have to be removed from the former railway, which sits on a gravel bed. Fine stone could be laid down on the railway bed initially, and it could be paved later, Baldwin said. Tracks have already been removed from a few locations: across Melton Lake Drive in east Oak Ridge and across South Illinois Avenue in south-central Oak Ridge.
Hetrick said the city received the grant sooner than expected.
“It’s moving forward,” he said. “We are continuing to move ahead.”
The City Council meeting starts at 7 p.m. Monday, July 10, in the Oak Ridge Municipal Building Courtroom at 200 South Tulane Avenue. See the agenda here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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