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First draft of ‘Rails-to-Trails’ master plan revealed

Gary B. Gray • Aug 27, 2013 at 7:31 AM

Durham, N.C.-based Alta/Greenways unveiled on Thursday its first draft of a master plan for East Tennessee’s first “Rails-to-Trails” project, which will serve as a guide for the successful completion of a 10-mile pedestrian-friendly path from Johnson City to Elizabethton.

For now, it has been dubbed the Johnson City Rail Trail, and its estimated price tag is about $5.2 million.

Johnson City commissioners and Elizabethton City Council members sat at the proverbial table at Memorial Park Community Center to view the plan, which included an impressive organization of the tiniest details of which all or none will be used to construct the recreational attraction.

Pedestrian-scale lighting. Bicycle parking and water fountains. Maps and signage with kiosks at trail heads. Art, both functional and aesthetic. Rest areas with stone, wrought iron or concrete benches. This is just a smidgen of what is likely to fly.

With that said, four important facts stood out after the presentation: Johnson City will take possession of the property on June 27; the trail likely will take years to come to fruition; no funding has been identified for the project; and representatives from both cities sounded optimistic about the project and appeared willing to give and take to make it happen.

“It’s the first time in history that I know of that the two bodies have gotten together,” Dan Reese, Tweetsie Trail Historical Association chairman and Tennessee Department of Conservation Council on Greenways and Trails chairman, said after the meeting. “It raises the level of awareness about the project, and it gives me a sense that they can work together.”

Alta/Greenways has assembled a team that includes members of its staff as well as personnel with Parsons Brinkerhoff, a Tennessee-based firm that specializes in engineering and planning and road, rail and land use. Charles Flink, Alta/Greenways president, will serve as principal-in-charge and Britt Stork will be the project manager. Michelle Kendall will lead the Parsons Brinckerhoff team.

Glenn Berry, Johnson City Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization coordinator, is serving as Johnson City’s point person on the project.

Here’s what will happen next: the company plans to wrap up its citizen surveys (one has revealed a 96 percent positive response); consultants will be hired to take a look at needed structural improvements and coordinate bridge-crossing requirements with the Tennessee Department of Transportation; and meetings will be held — by both city leaders, and by the Public Works Department and affected property owners.

Stork said the word “Tweetsie” has been patented by a theme park in Blowing Rock, N.C., and East Tennessee Railway, so the city would need to seek a “grant of consent” or enter into license agreements before it can be christened the Tweetsie Trail.

“It’s a framework,” Stork said about the comprehensive study that includes intersection measurements, traffic counts, visibility data, crossing locations, itemized costs and destinations and historic features that would apply to the trail. “The Johnson City Rail Trail will be one of the top trails in this part of the country. A lot has been accomplished, but there’s a long way to go before we’re really ready.”

Genesee & Wyoming, East Tennessee Railway’s parent company, agreed in 2011 to Johnson City’s $600,000 offer for the 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.

Stork said the proposed trail has the potential to attract tourism and create a “growth spurt” in the area.

The plan shows three major trail heads, with others planned at various locations. The first is off Legion Street in what Stork termed “the beginning of the trail.” It would include about 50 parking spaces, kiosks, bike racks and other amenities. The next is on Dixon Street in Elizabethton — the gateway to the real commercial part of the trail, according to Stork. The third trail head is in Elizabethton at Pine Street.

The company has done its homework, and it has identified what would be one of the first steps should funding become available and the city makes its move. Revamping and renovation structures along the route is by far the single most expensive item, at about $1.5 million.

There are six rail bridges on the line, with a mix of concrete, steel and timber, the largest of which crosses Tenn. Highway 67/U.S. Highway 321 and two bridges dating back to the late 1940s. These bridges are located in Johnson City. Two rail bridges cross streams in Elizabethton with one being located near Buffalo Creek and the other being located near the Southeast Ford dealership adjacent to Gap Creek Road.

The Johnson City Public Works Department will be responsible for the management and operation of the trail. It may end up playing an even bigger role if grant funding to help construct the trail does not come through. Johnson City Manager Pete Peterson said utilizing the department, especially for labor, could reduce the total cost of the project by as much as 50 percent.

“We’re going to hire an outside consultant to give us an idea of what it will take to build or renovate the structures,” he said. “Once you’ve got that, you may not have an asphalt walking surface, but you’re going to have a place to walk.”

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