published Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

$80 million U.S. Highway 27 redesign on hold

TDOT has put a hold on plans to widen the Ogiati Bridge and parts of U.S. Highway 27 near downtown until officials can work out the details.
TDOT has put a hold on plans to widen the Ogiati Bridge and parts of U.S. Highway 27 near downtown until officials can work out the details.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
What happened?

What: An $80 million plan for widening Olgiati Bridge and plans to revamp U.S. Highway 27 between the bridge and Interstate 24 were pulled from a three-year state transportation document.

Why: Officials at the Tennessee Department of Transportation say they don't build roads if the community doesn't support them, so they pulled the project after encountering opposition to the plan during an Urban Design Challenge presentation on the Fourth Street corridor.

What's next: The agency will reconsider adding the project in a year with a one-year delay, putting off possible completion until 2017.

What doesn't change: Workers will continue work on U.S. 27 north of the Olgiati Bridge.

Source: Tennessee Department of Transportation

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Tennessee has yanked the emergency brake on the downtown half of the U.S. Highway 27 construction project.

State transportation officials have planned for five years to spend about $80 million to widen the Olgiati Bridge and rebuild the aging highway between the bridge and Interstate 24 by 2016. But the state has sent those blueprints to planning purgatory until local and Tennessee officials can agree on the details.

"We don't build roads unless we have consensus with local leaders," Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer said. "We're going to take a step back, which is why we pulled it from the three-year plan, and we're going to re-look at the MLK intersection and Fourth Street intersection to make sure that we have an agreement."

There is $9 billion worth of TDOT projects in the pipeline, but the agency has only $900 million to spend on road construction in any given year, he said.

"Since that's the case and I have limited capacity, I'm not going to put roads where people don't want them," he said. "We're going to put them where they're embraced."

Though workers will continue the $102.5 million project north of the bridge to Signal Mountain Boulevard, the state's decision temporarily ends local hopes of widening the Olgiati Bridge and U.S. 27 through downtown unless a compromise is hammered out.

At a meeting last month to discuss ideas for the Fourth Street corridor, local architects criticized planned retaining walls on U.S. 27 as well as a flying on-ramp at the Fourth Street interchange. At the discussion, sponsored by downtown development group River City Co., critics said the plan could reduce the amount of developable land downtown and create a concrete canyon.

Some city planners also criticized a proposed roundabout at the M.L. King Boulevard/U.S. 27 interchange, saying it cut off the westside from the rest of the city by discouraging pedestrians from crossing.

Opposition to the road's revamp came as a surprise to Schroer after changes TDOT already made to satisfy local requests, including the roundabout.

"The city wanted a roundabout; they wanted different modes of transportation, and we listened and we did that," he said.

The stalled project may become the latest casualty of more than two decades of wrangling over the future of the road, parts of which predate the Korean War.

This isn't the first time design disagreements have rear-ended the road's rehabilitation, said Mayor Ron Littlefield, who said he wants to keep the plan the way it is. Redesigning the plan at this point would mean "we'll all be dead of old age before this thing comes to fruition," he said.

"I can remember back 20 years and more with this long-discussed, much-needed project, and it was literally talked to death then," he said. "I don't want to see history repeat itself in quite so familiar a fashion."

But he called the project's disappearance from TDOT's three-year planning timetable merely a delay based on a misunderstanding.

"I have to think the decision was based more on the financial realities that TDOT faces every year," he said.

Much of the highway under discussion dates back to the 1940s and 1950s, according to city Traffic Engineer John Van Winkle. Some sections of the narrow, winding blacktop bent the rules for highway construction half a century ago, and little if any of the highway complies with current standards, he said.

In recent months, a vocal contingent of city planners has publicly criticized Chattanooga's car-centric roadways at several visioning events. A number of architects and city planners are calling instead for a pedestrian-focused plan to rejuvenate key sections of the city.

"There are no human beings here outside of the ones driving vehicles," architect Eric Myers said of the Fourth Street interchange.

Kim White, president and CEO of River City Co., said she supports the new highway but wants to get it right.

"We are so overdue for work on 27 it's embarrassing, but sometimes this stage is difficult," she said. "It's about how to marry the community's desires and TDOT's desires. Our goal with Fourth Street is to make it more pedestrian friendly, which isn't what they're out to do."

TDOT, however, is stuck between a ramp and a holy place.

If the agency moves the highway farther west toward Cameron Hill -- home to the headquarters of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, U.S. 27 would run just a few yards away from the stained-glass windows of First Baptist Church, whose 955 members are already sacrificing a two-acre chunk of land for the project.

"It is our opinion that it's come about as far west as it can come, short of actually building all of the freeway right next to us," said Dan Mayfield, chairman of the church committee that must approve the state's plan.

In any case, Littlefield said, "major or even moderate redesigns at this point are off the table."

Talks are continuing between city and state officials in hopes of solidifying community support for the plan. However, TDOT is "not going to go forward until I have a complete consensus with all stakeholders," Schroer said. "I think, quite frankly, they did a disservice to the city and created some issues that probably weren't out there, but we need to answer all those questions and make sure that this isn't the direction they want to go."

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about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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