published Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Chattanooga again tackles aging Wilcox tunnel with second attempt at federal grant


by Cliff Hightower
Motorists pass through the tunnel on Wilcox Boulevard on Wednesday.
Motorists pass through the tunnel on Wilcox Boulevard on Wednesday.
Photo by Jake Daniels.
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A BRIEF HISTORY

The Wilcox Tunnel was started in 1930 and finished in 1931 at an approximate cost of $325,000. In 2005, the city spent $125,000 to fix leaks, fill cracks and close the pedestrian walkway in the tunnel. In March 2011, the City Council debated spending $455,000 for a temporary fix, but council members eventually designated $700,000 for an expansion study.

Joseph Hardaway would like to see a day he can ride his bike through Wilcox Tunnel from his home on Peggy Lane.

Just a few months ago, he walked through the narrow tunnel and felt like he took his life in his own hands.

"It's scary, man," he said. "The way some people drive through it. ... They zoom through it like it's the Indy 500."

Hardaway may get his wish if the Chattanooga City Council can put all the pieces together.

The council voted 9-0 Tuesday night to apply for a $25 million federal grant to fix the existing tunnel and build a second one alongside. The city would have to put up about $17 million in matching funds.

It's the city's second attempt at getting a federal Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant. The city first applied in September 2011, but didn't get it, said Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield.

"That tunnel's going to have to be replaced, regardless," Beeland said. "If we can get $25 million from the feds, we will."

The existing tunnel has had problems with ceiling leaks and poor ventilation for years. Repairs were done two years ago, but the problems persisted.

The plans call for a new, two-lane tunnel for westbound traffic toward Amnicola Highway. The existing tunnel would have one lane of traffic plus a pedestrian walkway and bike path for eastbound traffic.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation already is widening Shallowford Road toward Wilcox Tunnel. City officials have said they eventually plan to widen Wilcox Boulevard to four lanes from Amnicola Highway to Shallowford Road, a stretch that includes the tunnel.

City Engineer Bill Payne said Wednesday he is hopeful that the second time will be the charm for the federal grant.

"The Federal Highway Administration provided us some comments on where we did well and where we could improve" in this round, he said.

Suggestions included noting how the project would ease traffic congestion and highlighting any links that have national or regional significance.

"We know there were no Tennessee awards in the last round [2011]," Payne said. "We're hopeful that means they'll take a better look at TIGER applications from us. ... If there are any others [applications] in Tennessee, we're not aware of it."

The application deadline is March 19, and Payne said the city could hear anytime between May and September whether it has won the grant.

The new grant would come from a $500 million U.S. Department of Transportation pot of money. The competitive grants are to be used for capital transportation infrastructure projects "having a significant impact on the nation, a metropolitan area, or region," according to the transportation department's website.

The city would coordinate the project and TDOT would provide oversight of the federal grant, TDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn said Wednesday.

Councilman Russell Gilbert, who represents the area, said he is glad widening the tunnel is at the forefront of the city's agenda, but he said he wants two traffic lanes in both the old and the new tunnels.

"I'm going to fight that battle because it needs to be four lanes," he said.

James White lives on Pope Drive, within a mile of the tunnel. He's been driving through it since 1976 and said money should be spent to fix the problem.

"They're fixing it on one end," he said. "Why not the other end? It's a waste of money if they don't do both ends."

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about Judy Walton...

Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...

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