Transforming Chattanooga: How Rail-with-Trail Is Shaping the City's Future

Posted 06/26/15 by Katie Harris in Building Trails, Success Stories

Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga | Photo courtesy The Trust for Public Land

October 1969. You sit down with your family to watch the evening news broadcast as the cool fall air billows in your window. Walter Cronkite’s familiar voice announces that tonight’s broadcast is focusing on your city, Chattanooga, Tennessee! Unfortunately, Cronkite’s feature unveils Chattanooga as the Dirtiest City in America. What will your city look like in 45 years if the status quo remains and the pollution levels stay steady? The future looks smog-ridden and bleak.

Luckily, the Chattanooga of today is leaps and bounds away from that bleak vision. In fact, the city, which has been nicknamed Scenic City, earned the title of Outside Magazine’s Best Town in 2015. Incredible clean-up efforts and changes in local policies and perceptions deviated the city from what would have been a collision course for ruin. Now, Chattanooga boasts a flourishing outdoor culture and can proudly consider itself a healthy place for recreation, green space and living a full and healthy life.

Tennessee Riverwalk | Photo courtesy The Trust for Public Land

Opportunities for active transportation have a lot to do with this dramatic change in direction. More than a decade of work by city leaders, cycling advocates and outdoor enthusiasts has led Chattanooga to become a more walkable, bikeable place. The Tennessee Riverwalk, for example, covers 10 miles and is being extended another 20, cutting a swath through the city. Over the next four years, under the Chattanooga Bicycle Implementation Plan, the city will increase bicycle facilities more than five-fold, from 74 miles to a projected 399 miles.

Still, the Riverwalk bypasses most neighborhoods, and most of the new bicycle facilities will take the form of marked bike lanes and signed bike routes rather than protected bike lanes and greenways. Little attention has been paid to tapping into the nearly 150 miles of rail corridor within the city. The reason: Much of it is still active and, therefore—so community planners thought—not available for trails or greenways.

That way of thinking changed when Kelly Pack, director of trail development with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), represented RTC at the Georgia Trail Summit in 2014. Pack was excited to share findings from RTC’s newest study on rails-with-trails.

Tennessee Riverwalk | Photo courtesy The Trust for Public Land

When Chattanooga local business leader and staunch bike advocate Jim Johnson paused at RTC’s exhibit, he and Pack talked about trails within or alongside active rail corridors, and a light bulb went off. 

“We have more than 150 miles of rail corridor in Chattanooga,” says Johnson. “I immediately wondered how much of that might be appropriate for adjacent trails that might connect our neighborhoods and our downtown. I knew this was an opportunity.”

Johnson returned to Chattanooga and shared the idea with leaders at The Trust for Public Land (TPL), the Chattanooga Department of Transportation (DOT) and local foundations. They quickly realized that the present rail network remained an untapped resource for expanding the city’s trail network.

According to Pack, the rail system is something that exists but is not something in the front of the minds of community members in Chattanooga. “People occasionally cross the tracks or hear a train come through, but because there is no commuter passenger rail, it’s hard for the community to envision where these corridors could go or, more importantly, the places that they could be connecting,” says Pack. 

South Chickamauga Creek Greenway | Photo courtesy The Trust for Public Land

Community destination connections include schools, residential and retail development, and city parks. Other destinations would no doubt be two of Chattanooga’s biggest employers, Volkswagen and Amazon.

Along with Johnson, RTC teamed up with TPL and Chattanooga DOT to assess the corridors in question and develop suggestions for moving forward.

Chattanooga is an interesting case because the history of the city is intimately tied to the railroad. In fact, the introduction and location of rail lines into the city shaped its commercial, neighborhood and industrial contours. And that is why the potential for rail-with-trail is so immense. Including trails into the corridors that swoop through Chattanooga could be just as significant to the city’s future as was the railroad’s boom of days past.

Drawing from the experience of the hundreds of communities that have successfully developed trails within or immediately adjacent to active railroad corridors, RTC has long led the discussion on rail-with-trail, and it will continue to do so as communities like Chattanooga increasingly see the value of trails. “The people of Chattanooga are increasingly excited about using trails for transportation,” says Johnson. “Trails are part of the fabric of our future, not just our past. It speaks to the essence of a community if [it] makes trails a priority. And Chattanooga is doing just that.”

It should come as a relief to current Chattanooga citizens that Walter Cronkite would not be able to recognize it as the city he reported on in the late 1960s. Chattanooga has made great progress and will continue to evolve, with the focus on trails enhancing and strengthening the city’s future.

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