The Tweestie Trail’s scenic, 10-mile stretch of land still is set to be transformed into East Tennessee’s first “rails-to-trails” project, but the pace at which gains are made on the multi-purpose recreational pathway will take some time.
In late April, the Johnson City Commission took a long-awaited step and approved a $600,000 agreement to buy approximately 70 acres of land needed for the project from Genesee & Wyoming, the parent company of East Tennessee Railway.
The property’s path includes land where the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina railroad once operated between Johnson City and Elizabethton, and the abandoned corridor runs from Alabama and Legion streets in Johnson City and ends near the State Line Drive-In in Elizabethton.
The railroad signed the contract in April as well, and the deal closed in late June. When that happened, the city became legally responsible for the property. However, the company has 24 months to remove the line and other equipment.
In the interim, the city, along with groups such as the Tweetsie Historical Trail Association, have begun looking at grants and other methods of funding the trail.
“The public response from the finalization of the plan has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Dan Reese, THTA chairman and Washington County Economic Development Council project manager. “At this point I’m pretty sure the city will be applying for a federal enhancement grant.”
Reese said the association also is looking at grants and other methods of funding the trail and that it presents a safe and affordable opportunity for walking, jogging and biking to the entire community, with all of the health and fitness benefits that follow. The experience with other trails has been that new small businesses spring up along the route, such as the bike shops and restaurants, he added.
It may also provide an alternative transportation route to walking to school, bike commuting to work or shopping for groceries, getting out for a little fresh air in a safe environment, or just hiking over to visit a neighbor, Reese said.
Acquisition of the land allows the city to use it for a trail but also requires the city to maintain the property so the railroad company could reactivate service if it chose to do so. Should that happen, the city would be reimbursed for its costs.
Meanwhile, the city and railroad share responsibilities on the trail.
“The city is adding the property to its insurance policy, but I don’t know the exact cost,” said Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl, who worked for years to get the deal done. “The city plans to contact all property owners along the route, and we’ll also be looking into all existing rights-of-way.”
Johnson City also must pay property tax on the land. The amount currently is unknown.
The company has 24 months to remove railroad ties and equipment, and it also is responsible for repairing and repaving any and all road crossings. While the old rails would be removed, bridges, culverts and small depots would be preserved.
Much of the purchase includes land inside the Elizabethton city limits, and that city government has watched the negotiations closely. Many in Elizabethton are most concerned about preserving the rail corridor, but many also see the advantages of a long bike and hiking trail serving the two cities.