TACIR recommends Nashville-to-Chattanooga passenger rail

Published 9:38 am Friday, July 14, 2023

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The Center Square

Tennessee should move forward on plans to pursue a passenger rail line from Nashville to Chattanooga to Atlanta, according to a new report from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

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The TACIR report asked the Tennessee Department of Transportation to move forward to determine the cost and engineering of adding that rail service.

TACIR was tasked at looking into the feasibility of adding passenger rail routes in the state after Amtrak announced a 2035 plan to bring service back to Nashville. Nashville last had Amtrak service in 1979, when the Floridian running from Chicago to Miami discontinued service due to poor ridership.

The state currently has one line of Amtrak service daily on a route between Chicago and New Orleans that stops in both Memphis and Newbern-Dyersburg. In the pre-pandemic fiscal year 2019, a total of 64,401 passengers used the service. That number dropped off significantly to 34,885 in FY 2020 and then was 27,124 in FY 2021.

The TACIR report, however, said long term expected highway congestion data shows the time it takes to commute across the state could significantly increase in coming years.

“It takes two or three hours to drive from Nashville to Chattanooga, Knoxville, or Memphis today,” the report said. “But what if traffic added an hour to each of those trips — the equivalent of extending your drive from Nashville to Knoxville up to Greeneville — and what if that three- to four-hour trip was the new norm?”

The top TACIR recommended priorities are the Nashville to Chattanooga line and a Memphis to Nashville line, along with a line from Chattanooga to Knoxville to Bristol.

In the meantime, the report recommends that TDOT create an office of rail and public transportation to look into increased bus service between those cities.

“While passenger rail projects can take decades to implement and require extensive initial and ongoing investment, intercity bus service can be implemented in less time and for less money,” the report said. “And some communities that need transportation options would not be served by potential passenger rail routes.”

TACIR recommended that TDOT work with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to work with Virginia’s effort to connect Bristol to Amtrak Northeast Regional passenger rail.

The report noted North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania began new intercity passenger rail services in recent years.