The Oak Ridge City Council on Monday unanimously approved a $1.5 million contract with the Tennessee Department of Transportation that is expected to allow a former railroad to be converted into a greenway.
The so-called Rails to Trails project will 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 20 percent match of $306,000, which would be provided by the City of Oak Ridge. The combined funding from the TAP award and the local match is $1.53 million.
The overall cost of the Rails to Trails project isn’t clear. The property has not been purchased, and the TAP grant, federal money disbursed here through the Federal Highway Act, does not include purchase, Oak Ridge Community Development Director Kathryn Baldwin told City Council members on Monday.
“This is not the total amount,” Baldwin said. “This does not include purchase.”
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 TAP grant was awarded by the TPO, but it’s actually a Tennessee Department of Transportation grant.
On Monday, Baldwin told City Council members that most trails are recreational. But this one would be close to work places and a school, Jefferson Middle School, and it could be used as an alternative to automobiles, Baldwin said.
The Oak Ridge project would be a regional effort. People come from Knoxville every day to ride the Oak Ridge trails between Haw Ridge Park and Melton Lake, Baldwin said.
The Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) recognizes the Oak Ridge Rails to Trails project as a regional effort.
“As funds become necessary, I think they stand ready to appropriate those once we have solid engineering and purchase prices,” Baldwin said.
The Rails to Trails project was part of a bicycle and pedestrian plan adopted in 2011, along with sidewalks along Oak Ridge Turnpike.
A CSX appraisal has put the property purchase price at $1.5 million. CSX got the property from the U.S. Department of Energy in 1962 for $1.
Asked if the railroad might consider donating the property, CSX has said it is a publicly-traded company and the railroad is an asset, and the company must satisfy its shareholders, Baldwin told City Council.
She said CSX wouldn’t transfer the property until it removes the tracks and ties.
“They have to remove all that before the transfer occurs,” Baldwin said.
After that, the area would be usable, but would be rocky, she said.
“I think it would be highly usable the day the track comes up,” she said.
But the trail would have to meet TDOT standards, and there are safety considerations, including making sure children would be safe crossing intersections.
The project will probably be implemented in phases, similar to the four-phase Melton Lake Greenway.
Among the considerations that officials will look at are the accessibility to trails at trailheads, integrating the trail into neighborhoods, and the street crossings.
An environmental impact statement would be required because this project would use federal highway money. Also, CSX has its own strenuous environmental sampling, Baldwin said. They might mostly look for arsenic contamination from railroad ties, which are heavily treated to keep out bugs but can leak into the soil, Baldwin said.
The phases of the Rails to Trails project could include one from Elza Gate area to Cumberland View (across from JMS), from there to Hendrix Creek, and from there to Illinois—and then across Illinois to Y-12.
Even longer term, the city has looked at connections along Scarboro Road to Clark Center Park and Bethel Valley and back along Union Valley, which could eventually loop back to Melton Lake Greenway.
Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson gave credit to Baldwin for helping the project to proceed.
“We have worked on this for a long time,” Baldwin said.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
See our previous story here.
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