Rails to Trails and Vision to Reality
By Jeff Keeling
Photos by Harold Ross, Jr.
This weekend’s “Tweetsie Trek” will mark the opening of Tennessee’s longest “rails-to-trails” project, and celebrate the culmination of a vision that goes back eight years – on the bones of a railroad that goes back nearly 150, and required 16 years to take from vision to reality.
“It really is an important link between this area’s railroading heritage and people’s modern recreational interests centered around wellness and quality of life,” said former Johnson City commissioner Steve Darden, whose involvement stretches to the effort’s beginnings in 2006.
More than 1,000 people are expected to turn out for the official opening of the trail running along the former East Tennessee and Western North Carolina (“Tweetsie”) rail bed, but usage has been heavy since crews applied the “chat” surface in mid-June.
From current city commissioner Jenny Brock to Darden, leaders are thrilled with the near-final product. More phases to complete the 10-mile trail are pending, as are some final touches. These include benches and trash receptacles along the finished section that now extends more than 7 miles from Legion and Alabama streets in Johnson City to Holly Street and Elk Avenue near downtown Elizabethton.
“Of all the things we accomplished during my 10 years on the commission, the Tweetsie Trail has had the most sustained enthusiasm of anything I can think of,” Darden said Monday. In addition to his initial role in securing purchase of the rail line from owners Genesee & Wyoming, Darden currently serves on the Rails to Trails Committee chaired by Dan Schumaier.
Darden will be at Saturday’s “Trek” (more information is at tweetsietrail.com/trek) volunteering to help make sure the runners, walkers and cyclists who have registered for their respective events have a safe, fun experience. He expects to have a smile on his face as he watches people enjoy what so many of their fellow citizens have persevered to see through to fruition. Since kicking off its campaign in earnest last fall, the committee has seen cash donations totaling nearly $223,000 roll in. Those include specifically targeted amounts for decorative bricks, benches, bridges and surfacing, as well as general donations.
“It may have been hard to predict the level of giving that we’ve seen, but when you consider how broad based the support was for the project, and how eager people have been to see it become usable, I guess this is fairly consistent with the way the project has gone from the beginning,” Darden said.
For her part, Brock is excited about how well-used she expects the trail to become, particularly by cyclists looking for a safe option.
“As soon as people get out there and see it they’re going to come back,” she said. “The exciting thing to me the times I’ve been on the trail is to see the families together. It’s just a protected safe place where families can get on there, kids can ride their bicycles.”
After Saturday: Still work to be done
Brock said the trail’s capacity will be more than tested Saturday, beginning with an 8:30 a.m. run from Lions Field in Elizabethton to Alabama Street, a distance of 4.3 miles. A walk follows at 9 a.m., with an out and back cycling event that starts and ends in Johnson City beginning at noon. Live music and other festivities follow at the nearby Memorial Park Community Center.
“We’ll be observing the crowds to see if there are pinch points along the trail,” Brock said. “We need to make it an experience that’s safe and enjoyable for everyone.”
The right of way is owned by Johnson City, but the trail passes through several local government jurisdictions, including Carter County and the City of Elizabethton. Additionally, some access points abut private property. Several, though, allow for unimpeded parking, including the Alabama Street entrance; the Apostolic Church on Cedar Grove Road about 1 mile down the trail; Happy Valley Elementary on the Milligan Highway; and Lions Field in Elizabethton, which is reached from a road off the westbound lane of Highway 321 just west of the West G Street traffic light.
Brock also said a few trail crossroads can get significant traffic, particularly in Elizabethton.
“We’ve got to work through those things, but I think we’ll learn real quickly how we’re going to manage it and make it successful,” she said. “These are good problems to have.”
By the numbers
The trail’s completion hasn’t cost nearly the initial $6 million estimate, but it has involved significant cash, in-kind support and work on the part of Johnson City Public Works crews. Figures from City Finance Director Janet Jennings’ office show that as of Monday, the total cash received including donations stood at $410,948. That included $100,000 from the city’s general fund and another $72,550 earned by the city when it sold property to the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
As of the same date, $233,714 had been spent or designated, leaving nearly $200,000 for further work. With funds pending from the Trek and more donations likely, the trail appears well on its way to completion all the way to its eastern near the State Line Drive-In Theater.
The trail incorporates a very gentle grade along its length, with a top elevation of about 1,680 feet and a low point of around 1,470. From west (Johnson City) to east it crosses Sinking Creek, Catbird Creek, Buffalo Creek, Gap Creek, and several unnamed tributaries.
Johnson City Public Works Director Phil Pindzola said a weekly minimum of 200 man hours from his department has been dedicated to the trail’s construction since early spring. “It’s been a minimum of one five-man crew per day, and often more,” said Pindzola, who with Schumaier has been a driving force this year.
Conservatively estimating the value of public works contributions at $150,000, and adding in easily six figures of in-kind labor and materials from businesses and other partners, and the project’s cost, while impossible to precisely quantify, approaches the million dollar mark.
Brock said it has been a small price to pay for the benefits, and she praised everyone who’s been involved – from Darden and assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl in the early days to Pindzola, Schumaier, the work crews and the committee in these latter stages.
“We had a group of commissioners who stepped forward, led by Steve Darden when he was mayor, who really had a vision for this,” Brock said. “Sometimes when you stick your neck out, people want to cut it off, but the payback on this is going to be huge for the city. Not just from a quality of life standpoint but from a health and economic standpoint. Thanks to those commissioners, we’re reaping the benefits now.”