Tweetsie Historic Trail Association: Tweetsie Trail News: Tweetsie Trail Plan Finally Has Momentum

Wednesday, April 20
Tweetsie Trail Plan Finally Has Momentum

April 20, 2011, Johnson City Press

An abandoned railroad line that runs along a scenic, 10-mile stretch of land is now set to become the first “rails-to-trails” project in East Tennessee.

In 2004, about one year after the line no longer provided service, Johnson City officials and the Tweetsie Historic Association made it clear they supported the purchase of the land on which they hoped to construct a new, scenic bicycle and walking path called the “Tweetsie Trail.”

Appalachian residents nicknamed the old locomotive that ran the route Tweetsie for its shrill whistle that used to echo through the mountains.

“After waiting for so long, I’m just glad to see this getting done,” said Dan Reese, Tweetsie Historical Trail Association chairman and Washington County Economic Development Council project manager. “I remember in 2004 when Phil Roe was mayor. He was behind this all the way. (Commissioner) Steve Darden has stood behind this for 10 years. So has (Mayor) Jane Myron. “I believe people in this area will get on board and really be supportive. Now the hard work begins.”

The first order of business comes Thursday when the City Commission reviews the proposed agreement — a move that has been on the back burner for 16 months due to drawn-out negotiations.

Genesee & Wyoming, the parent company of East Tennessee Railway, first solicited proposals in 2007 and again in 2008, when the city offered the company $600,000. The company then asked the city to update its offer in 2009, which again came in at $600,000.

At this point, the city, the association and the company agreed that the route, which runs through an active rail yard in Johnson City, then along steep hillsides and through cuts until it reaches Elizabethton, offered no practical opportunity for redevelopment.

Negotiations continued. And on Jan. 6, 2010, the Surface Transportation Board issued a Notice of Interim Trail Use, allowing the city to use the property as a trail through a rail banking agreement. This agreement finally has reached the commission’s chambers.

“This certainly is a large step forward,” said Johnson City Assistant Manager Charlie Stahl, who’s been tasked with coordinating the plan for the city. “The agreement first must be approved by the City Commission and the company. It will then go back to the transportation board, which will OK the conversion.”

Commissioners will vote Thursday to buy the right-of-way on about 70 acres of land on which the unused lines run from Alabama and Legion streets and ends near the State Line Drive-In in Elizabethton. Their intention is to convert the land into “rail banking” or “rails-to-trails” which allows an out-of-use railroad corridor to be converted for interim trail use, thereby preserving the corridor until such time as rail service is deemed feasible or necessary again.

Rail banking not only allows the construction of trails for public use, but it preserves these scenic corridors. The nearest rails-to-trails facility in use, the Virginia Creeper Trail, begins in Abingdon, Va.

The company may decide it needs to run rail service through the corridor at some point in the future. If that happens, the company will reimburse the city for its costs.

“That’s always a possibility, so we cannot sell any part of the corridor,” said City Manager Pete Peterson. “Everything must hold to railroad standards, as if the railway still ran there, but the old rails will be removed, and bridges, culverts and small depots will be preserved.”

Charles Montange, the Seattle attorney retained by the city to negotiate the purchase agreement, warned officials about the requirements.

“The agreement accompanying this memorandum is the culmination of four years of difficult negotiations,” Montange wrote in a summary. “The provisions of the agreement are typical of rail banking agreements. As with any rail banking agreement, the city managing the corridor should be mindful to treat it not as just another public trail, but instead as if it were a rail line.”

Peterson said the first step will be to identify existing needs at bridges along the path. He also said the company has 24 months to remove railroad ties and equipment and the company will be responsible for repairing and repaving any and all road crossings before the land is turned over to the city.

“From what I understand, TDOT is interested in putting some money into the trail,” he said. “But we have to remember to be careful, because costs could go up because of certain TDOT requirements. We also need to be active in gaining support for this. It will probably take us a couple of grant cycles to get some money.”

Much of the purchase will be for property inside the city limits of Elizabethton, and its city government has watched the negotiations closely.

“I am an enthusiastic supporter of the rails to trails program,” Elizabethton City Manager Fred Edens Jr. said Tuesday afternoon. “I think it has the potential of being what the Virginia Creeper has been to Abingdon. I also like the idea of rail banking the railroad line in the event some of our businesses have a need for a rail line sometime in the future.”

In addition to the two practical reasons for supporting the acquisition, Edens also strongly supports Johnson City’s action on philosophical grounds.

“This is going to be something a great number of people can use and enjoy,” he said. “It is not just for a select few, which is what happens with most special interest groups. This is a very wise expenditure of city revenue.”