published Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Chattanooga City Council votes to apply for federal grant to fund Wilcox Tunnel upgrade


by Cliff Hightower
Traffic travels Tuesday through the Wilcox Tunnel.  The city of Chattanooga plans to ask for a $25 million grant from federal authorities to help rebuild the tunnel.
Traffic travels Tuesday through the Wilcox Tunnel. The city of Chattanooga plans to ask for a $25 million grant from federal authorities to help rebuild the tunnel.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
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OTHER ACTIONS

The City Council on Tuesday also:

• Confirmed Wade Hinton as city attorney 8-1. The lone no vote came from Councilman Chip Henderson, who said he was hesitant about Hinton not having municipal experience. The council also confirmed Donna Williams as administrator of the Department of Economic and Community Development and Daisy Madison as finance director.

• Approved 9-0 accepting $23,840 to buy licenses for a program to help teach children and adults how to read. Leroy Jennings, administrator for Department of Youth and Development, said there would be five recreation centers named in the near future where the software will be placed.

• Deferred for a week a resolution to fix the roof at Memorial Auditorium after council members questioned the auditorium's expenses and whether it made a profit. City officials said they would answer questions and get back with council next week.

Wilcox Tunnel is getting the old college try as Chattanooga tries a second time for a federal grant to fix the old passage through Missionary Ridge.

The Chattanooga City Council voted 9-0 to apply for a $25 million federal grant that could allow building a second tunnel with two lanes and improving the existing tunnel. The council previously tried, and failed, in spring 2012 to get a grant for the work.

Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem said Tuesday during a Public Works and Transportation Committee meeting that the time for action is approaching fast. The problems with the tunnel have been talked about for 23 years, he said.

"We're sick and tired of being sick and tired," he said.

Blythe Bailey, administrator of the Department of Transportation, briefed the council about the tunnel and the grant Tuesday afternoon. He said the grant would require a $22 million match of city funds.

The tunnel "has a number of deficiencies," he said.

Those deficiencies include water leakage, ventilation problems and no way for pedestrians or bicyclists to walk safely from one side to the other, Bailey said.

The council passed up an opportunity to get a grant of $1.8 million to build boat docks at the Tennessee Riverwalk a month ago.

Councilman Ken Smith, chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee, said this situation is different from the boating issue.

"This tunnel has everything to do with public safety and transportation," he said.

Ambulances and firetrucks can't make it through the tunnel right now, he said. The water in the tunnel during winter could freeze over and cause accidents, he said.

At the same time, the city is not obligated to the grant if the city is chosen, he said.

City officials said the work would consist of making the existing tunnel one lane only with westbound traffic. A new two-lane tunnel would help with eastbound traffic.

There are plans for a $1.5 million fix to patch up the old tunnel if the grant does not come through, Bailey said.

That would help with ventilation, water leakage and warning lights for when pedestrians cross.

But he said those improvements would not be considered until the city finds out whether the grant has been accepted within the next six weeks to four months.

Contact staff writer Cliff Hightower at chightower@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480. Follow him at twitter.com/cliffhightower or facebook.com/cliff.hightower.

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