State Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, talks about a toll bridge over Chickamauga Lake on Wednesday in the Hamilton County Commission Room. Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield listens to the exchange with the engineer firm representative. Harmon, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said the new governor-elect is not in favor of toll roads for Tennessee.Staff Photo by Tim Barber
Hamilton County could get a sixth vehicle bridge across the Tennessee River within the next decade, but its users would need to pay $5 per trip to cover the costs of the span and related roads, a new study shows.
Consultants for the Tennessee Department of Transportation told local elected officials Wednesday that a new bridge in northern Hamilton County is feasible and could offer a quicker and more direct route between Collegedale and Soddy-Daisy -- the fastest-growing municipalities in the region.
But state transportation leaders said they are wary about the proposed fees needed to support what could be Tennessee's first toll bridge.
"I don't know that the people of Tennessee are willing to pay $5 to go across a bridge each way," said Joe Carpenter, TDOT's chief of environment and planning, who suggested more studies.
"This project is feasible, but it's not a slam dunk," Carpenter said.
Supporters of the new bridge insist a $5 toll may not seem that high by the time such a road is erected in 2018 or later. And the bridge would save time and fuel if drivers can shorten the current 50-mile trip from Ooltewah or Collegedale to Lakesite or Soddy-Daisy.
State Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, who convened Wednesday's bridge update, said growth from more than $2.5 billion of new plants being built by Volkswagen, Wacker Chemical and Amazon in Hamilton and Bradley counties mean a toll bridge would be well used.
"I think these developments took this project from 'probably not' to 'maybe will,'" Cobb said. "The $5 toll seems too high right now, but in eight to 10 years when this bridge could be built and opened that may not seem that bad."
Tolling for dollars
Tennessee doesn't charge fees for motorists to use roads or bridges. But growing maintenance needs and slowing gas tax collections have state officials looking at new ways to pay for needed infrastructure.
Carpenter said the state has more than $9 billion of unfunded projects under way, and maintenance of existing roads and bridges is likely to absorb a bigger share of TDOT's budgets in the future.
In 2007, the Tennessee General Assembly authorized state transportation planners to consider eight toll roads and bridges to keep the state from spending its own money.
The most feasible proposal is the bridge in northern Hamilton County -- $152 million to $246 million for the bridge and related roads -- and a bridge across the Mississippi River that could cost up to $1 billion.
Rebecca Brooks, director of development services for the consulting firm of Wilbur Smith and Associates, said the firm's study indicates that 6,700 to 7,600 cars and trucks would cross the northern Hamilton toll bridge every day, even with a $5 toll.
"That is a relatively low volume, but it is feasible," she said.
Lower-volume toll bridges are working in Orange Beach, Ala., and in Millbrook, Ala., she said.
Local planners have been pushing for a Tennessee River bridge between the Chickamauga Dam in Hixson and Highway 60 more than 30 miles upriver.
"This was put on the drawing board back in the 1970s and it's time to quit talking about this bridge and now do something about it," said Hamilton County Trustee and former County Commissioner Bill Hullander.
Finding a route
The bridges of Hamilton County
* Olgiati Bridge: U.S. Highway 27, downtown Chattanooga
* Market Street (Chief John Ross) Bridge: downtown Chattanooga
* Walnut Street Bridge: Pedestrian bridge, downtown Chattanooga
* Veterans Bridge: Connects Frazier and Georgia avenues, downtown Chattanooga
*C.B. Robinson Bridge: Connects Amniciola Highway and Access Road
* Southern Railway railroad bridge: Just below the Chickamauga Dam
* Thrasher Bridge: State Highway 153 over the Chickamauga Dam
Source: Tennessee Department of Transportation
TDOT consultants developed four alternatives for the toll bridge.
They include either a new interchange at mile marker 13 on Interstate 75, or the extension of the Enterprise South road through the industrial park to connect with Highway 58. The proposed bridge would be built near Lakesite across Lake Chickamauga.
TDOT already has spent $457,000 on studies. Next come more than $1 million for mapping, environmental studies and a detailed grading report, plus engineering and design costs, Carpenter said.
"We have to recognize that's a lot of money and will likely have to come out of other projects," he said.
State Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said TDOT "spends a tremendous amount of money on studies that don't accomplish anything."
Harmon said he is wary of additional study since Gov.-elect Bill Haslam said during the campaign that he doesn't favor toll roads.
"Revenues are going down and costs are going up, but I'm just not sure that Tennessee is ready yet for toll roads," Harmon said.
But Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said planners need to prepare for the expected influx coming from Volkswagen and other businesses.
"There are no easy answers to where the money is coming from, but we need to plan for the growth that is coming to our region and I think this bridge, should be part of that effort," he said.
Contact staff writer Dave Flessner at 757-6340 or firstname.lastname@example.org.