published Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Without a toll, Tennessee River bridge in doubt

Putting a new bridge across the Tennessee River in North Hamilton County will require the state to break its longtime "pay as you go" habit, state Transportation Commissioner John Schroer told local leaders Wednesday.

With a tight squeeze on road money, the state would have to enter "uncharted territory," selling bonds or partnering with private investors to build the bridge and connector roads and repaying them with toll revenues, he said.

"If tolling is not an option, this bridge probably won't be built -- I won't say forever, but for a long, long time," Schroer said during a briefing for the county's toll committee.

However, if the state does make the leap, a toll of $3 for cars and $4.50 for two-axle trucks would raise enough to build and operate the bridge for 40 years and repay the debt, a consultant told members of the Hamilton County Commission-appointed toll committee.

Rebecca Brooks, with Cambridge, Mass.-based engineering consultant CDM Smith, emphasized that the suggested routes and projected costs are for planning purposes only.

"There needs to be much more detailed studies completed, should any project move forward," Brooks said.

She outlined the favored alternative, which runs from Soddy-Daisy along Sequoyah Access Road, crosses the river on a new bridge and turns south on state Highway 58, then angles southeast through Enterprise South industrial park to link to Interstate 75. The latest cost estimate for that route is $166 million, Brooks said.

Other, more costly alternatives would link U.S. Highway 27 north of Soddy-Daisy and come down Ooltewah-Georgetown Road to link to I-75 at exit 20.

But Soddy-Daisy Commissioner Jim Adams didn't like any of the proposals.

"We want the bridge very badly. We support the new bridge. But we respectfully disagree with the location. ... This proposal doesn't help Soddy-Daisy at all," he told the officials gathered in the County Commission chambers.

Adams suggested linking the road to the bottom of state Highway 111 on the west and exit 20 on the east.

The river crossing would be narrower farther north, he said, and an interchange at Armstrong Road would open hundreds of acres of rural land up for development.

He also asked if TVA has been consulted. The current route shows the road running close beside the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant.

Tennessee Valley Authority spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell said the utility does have concerns about security and is working with TDOT as the project develops.

Schroer said there will be plenty of time to deal with those concerns and others. Public hearings will be set early in the year, he said, and findings compiled into a report that state lawmakers will probably see during the 2014 session.

"We're not going to start this bridge next year," he said.

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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