Master plan approved for “rails-to-trails” project

Gary B. Gray • Aug 27, 2013 at 7:39 AM

The first “rails-to-trails” project in East Tennessee gained momentum Thursday when the City Commission approved a master plan compiled by Durham, N.C.-based Alta/Greenways that will serve as a guide for the 10-mile pedestrian-friendly path from Johnson City to Elizabethton.

Alta/Greenways’ Johnson City Rails to Trails Master Plan bested six other companies after a thorough examination was conducted by a five-member selection committee comprised of city staff and a Tennessee Department of Transportation bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.

“The task was to go through the proposals and have each member evaluate the proposals using a scoring system,” said Glenn Berry, Johnson City Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization planning coordinator. “We narrowed the field to two, and they came in and gave 30-minute presentations. When that was finished, everyone was in agreement that Alta/Greenways was the superior choice.”

Berry, who will serve as the city’s point man on the project, said the $99,000 being paid to the company for its services has been budgeted by the MTPO.

“This begins to give the project focus,” he said. “This will allow us to bring all the ideas together. We will be having public meetings, but we want to wait until conceptual drawings are available. Overall, we expect the development of the master plan to take about eight months.”

Genesee & Wyoming, the parent company of East Tennessee Railway, agreed last year to Johnson City’s $600,000 offer for a 10-mile stretch of land on which the unused lines run from Alabama and Legion streets and end near the State Line Drive-In in Elizabethton.

Work has been under way to remove tracks and other equipment from the site for about two months. The right-of-way agreement, which returns the land to the railroad if its use as a trail goes away, gives ETR up to two years to clear the land. But Berry said that does not mean they might be finished much sooner.

“Rails-to-Trails,” or “railbanking” allows an out-of-use railroad corridor to be converted for interim trail use, thereby preserving the corridor until such time as rail service is deemed feasible or necessary again. Railbanking not only allows the construction of trails for public use, but it preserves these scenic corridors. The nearest rails-to-trails facility currently in use, the Virginia Creeper Trail, begins in Abingdon, Va.

Though it is hoped by most the completed project will be crowned the “Tweetsie Trail,” the city does not want to make a misstep, so the company’s legal staff will do some research to make sure it won’t get caught infringing on trademark rights.

Berry said the MTPO does not want to rush into applying for grants until the project’s cost is known.

“There’s nothing worse than getting a grant and finding out it won’t be enough,” he said. “It’s impossible to know right now what the trail might cost. There are still too many unknowns, and it may be this will be done in phases.”

Alta/Greenways has generated feasibility studies, master plans, cost benefit analyses and construction documents for 40 rails-to-trails projects across the nation, and the company’s track record has impressed Dan Reese, Tweetsie Trail Historical Association chairman.

“Alta is one of the most respected railbanking companies in the United States,” he said. “They are very attuned to working with the public. Sensitivity to that is one of their strongest traits. “I’m also very impressed with their concerns for safety and how they plan to determine who will manage and control the corridor.”

Reese said public support for the project is strong, despite some concerns about using taxpayer dollars.

“It’s my opinion this is a wise decision regarding green infrastructure,” he added.

The company has completed work on three rails-to-trails projects in North Carolina: the American Tobacco Trail, that state’s longest rails-to-trails project, the Atlantic and Yadkin Trail and the Downtown Greenway, both in Greensboro. In Tennessee, the company developed the Wolf Creek Greenway Plan and the Chickamauga Greenway master plan.

Alta/Greenways has assembled a team that will base its operations for the Tweetsie Trail in Durham and will include members of their staff as well as Parsons Brinkerhoff, which is headquartered in New York City and specializes in engineering and planning and road, rail and land use.

In September, members of a team assembled to work on the project met with Berry and spent the day walking the trail line.

“During the site visit, we increased our knowledge of the corridor and gained important local insight for the development of the trail that will connect Johnson City with Elizabethton,” said Charles Flink, the company’s senior designer and the principal person in charge of the overall plan.

Flink, with whom Berry was especially impressed, said the Johnson City project offered “tremendous potential.”

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