Tweetsie Historic Trail Association: Tweetsie Trail News: FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Friday, October 10

Updated July 29, 2013 

 (We appreciate your feedback!  We’re constantly working to improve our FAQs, so we encourage you to leave your comments, criticisms and suggestions in our Guestbook.  We’ll do our best to see that they are incorporated.  Thanks!)  

Q: Where will the trail start and end?   

A: The trail will start in downtown Johnson City, Tennessee, at Alabama Street near the Legion Street Recreation Center .  It will run east through Johnson City and Washington County to Carter County, through downtown Elizabethton, and end near Valley Forge between Elizabethton and Hampton 

Q: Who owns the line?

A: The City of Johnson City purchased the line from the Genessee and Wyoming Railroad in June, 2011.    

Q: Why not keep the rail line?  Isn't it an asset to both Johnson City and Elizabethton?
A: The line has been out of service since 2003; otherwise, G&W would not wish to sell it.  There are no customers in Elizabethton or Carter County currently, and no reasonable expectation that any will develop in the foreseeable future. 

Q: But couldn’t the line be used for other purposes, like excursions? 

A: The cost of upgrading the line for passenger excursion use is estimated by rail professionals to be in the million dollar range, and this does not include the cost of rolling stock.  With a probable use of only a few excursions a year, and those only 10 miles each way, the cost would be prohibitive. 

Q: If the rails are removed does the property go back to the original landowners? 

A: If the line had been abandoned, yes.  However, Johnson City now owns it, and has planned from the first to rail bank it and use it as a recreational trail. 

Q: What is Rail Banking?  

A: Upon application by a railroad to the federal government to sell a line, it can be rail banked, which means the corridor, with its rights of way and easements, remains intact and can be used for a recreational trail.  In the future, if rail service is needed a railroad may reclaim it, reimburse the current  owner, and the line reverts to being used as a railroad. Very few rail banking applications have been denied by the government, since it is almost always in the public interest to see that the corridors are preserved rather than abandoned.  Thousands of miles of rail lines have been rail banked all over the country and turned into hundreds of trails.  Some of the best are right in our area.  These include the Virginia Creeper Trail, widely considered one of the very best in the nation; the beautiful New River Trail in Virginia; and the Greenbrier River Trail in West Virginia.

Q: Why is a recreational trail preferable to a rail line?

A: In our opinion, the value as a recreational corridor vastly outweighs any other possible use.  Commercial rail service is not viable, and running an excursion service would be prohibitively expensive.  The route, which starts in an active rail yard in Johnson City and runs along steep hillsides and through cuts until it reaches Elizabethton, offers no practical opportunity for redevelopment.  In and beyond Elizabethton, the line follows existing roads; thus, reversion to the land owners would only mean extending existing parking lots and residential yards a few more feet.  On the other hand, a trail presents a safe and affordable opportunity for walking, jogging and biking to the entire community, with all of the health and fitness benefits that accrue.  The experience with other trails has been that new small businesses spring up along the route, such as the bike shops and restaurants in Damascus, Virginia, that cater to Virginia Creeper Trail users.  See this excellent report from the Virginia Dept. of Conservation.
The Tennessee/Virginia/North Carolina high country border region has a reputation as a world-class destination for active outdoor recreation, including skiing, hiking, road and mountain biking, horse riding, fishing, camping, and hunting.  The region’s role in the history of the founding of the United States, and the world-renowned rebirth of storytelling in Jonesborough, attracts many visitors.  While a trail from Johnson City to Elizabethton will not be a Virginia Creeper, and we discourage thinking of it that way, it would act as a connector for many of these activities and historic sites.  Thus a multi-use trail could be economically beneficial to Johnson City and Elizabethton by providing another draw for tourists to the area, although a modest one.  

Q: Who could use the trail? 

A: Walkers, hikers, bike riders, and (possibly) horseback riders.   

Q: Will the unique history of the Tweetsie Railroad be preserved? 

A: Yes, with historical markers, commemorative signage, and perhaps, one day, a museum. 

Q: So what's taking so long?  And how long is it going to take?

A: Rail removal started in January, 2012.  G&W has until June, 2013 to salvage the rails and ties and repair/upgrade the trestles and bridges, and that work is far along.  For the latest information, check out the Tweetsie Trail Construction Blog.  The Master Plan, which provides guidelines for trail construction, was approved in March, 2013 - see it here.  Negotiations between Johnson City, Elizabethton, Washington County and Carter County over each government’s role in the project promise to be complex, particularly in light of the tight budget situation in each.  Funding must be secured.  Then detail engineering begins, followed by selection of a contractor and construction.  Patience!  This is going to take several years at best!

Q: Who is going to pay for it?

A: All to be negotiated.  It is expected that Johnson City, Elizabethton, Washington County, and Carter County will make contributions, with additional funds from grants, private charitable foundations, and, of course, the Friends of the Tweetsie Trail. 

Q: Building it is one thing.  Maintaining it is another, and that can be expensive.  How will that be done, and who will pay for it?

A: Luckily, we have a good example nearby, the Virginia Creeper Trail.  The greatest cost is the original conversion to a recreational trail.  It turns out that yearly maintenance cost is not that great.  Much of the work will be done by volunteers and with the services of the prison system.

Q: How can you compare it to the Virginia Creeper Trail?  The character of the lines is very different.

A:  In some ways, the Virginia Creeper Trail is incomparable; it is widely considered one of the best and most successful rail-trail conversions in the nation.  The Tweetsie is much shorter than the Creeper (10 miles vs 34 miles).  Nonetheless, the Tweetsie passes through beautiful countryside and pastureland as it leaves Johnson City before becoming an urban trail as it passes through Elizabethton. Although it does not pass through scenic mountains, it does have the potential to connect historic sites such as Sycamore Shoals State Park; the site of Fort Watauga, where the Overmountain Men mustered for their fateful trip to Kings Mountain; Tipton-Haynes Historic Site; the 180-year-old Nathaniel Taylor House, now owned by Sycamore Shoals State Park; the Carter Mansion, oldest frame house west of the Appalachians; and the Overmountain National Historic Trail.  Its benefits would accrue primarily to local residents, with the potential to attract tourists a secondary but significant consideration.   

Q: Given the history of other rail-to-trail conversions, land owners often fight vigorously to prevent them.  Why would this time be any different?

A: When rail-to-trail conversion was new, its consequences were unknown and often feared.  With experience, it has become clear that the benefits far outweigh the costs, and landowners have experienced very, very few problems.  Trail users have proven to be well-behaved and respectful of the land and its owners.   That said, there is an important consideration that makes this situation different.  The line has not been abandoned; rather, it has been sold and railbanked.  Therefore the property does not revert to landowners; it merely changes ownership and stays within the domain of the federal Surface Transportation Board as a future rail line.  While some landowners may object (and probably will), this method has been successfully defended in courts across the country.

Q: It's not quite urban, and it's not quite country, and it's sure not out in the woods.  So what is it?

 A: It combines all of these aspects and provides 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.  It is perhaps best thought of as an exercise-oriented, semi-urban linear park. It would meet criteria for Tennessee’s Safe Routes to Schools Program.  It brings together two fine cities in a wonderful way.  

Q: How steep is the trail? 

A: One of the nice things about rail trails is that they don’t have steep grades, so you don’t have to be an athlete to enjoy them.  The Tweetsie Trail averages a gentle 1 ½ %.  And, surprisingly, it's uphill from Elizabethton to Johnson City! 

Q: Will the trail be accessible for the handicapped and elderly? 

A: With proper design and access, the trail will be a way for those with disabilities to enjoy nature and exercise safely. To make sure that the project is readily accessible for everyone, safe parking areas, rest rooms, benches, and water fountains must be provided.  All of these things are addressed in the Master Plan. 

Q: Who will manage the trail? 

A:  The City of Johnson City is spearheading the effort by buying and railbanking the line.  Everything else is subject to future negotiation, but it is hoped that the Tweetsie Historic Trail will be a joint project of Johnson City, Washington County, Elizabethton, and Carter County, all of which will benefit economically and socially from this wise and farsighted investment in recreational infrastructure.

Q: How can I help make the Tweetsie Historic Trail a reality?

A: Glad you asked!  Email Ken Gough, and we’ll get you involved.  Donations are very welcome – there is information on the Home Page about that.


Didn’t answer your question?  Have a suggestion for improvement?  Leave a comment in the Guestbook and we’ll get back to you.  Or if your need is immediate, please email Ken Gough  .