Vehicle accidents at the I-24/I-75 interchange for 2007-2012:
* Total crashes: 111
* Fatal: 1
* Total other injuries: 72
Source: Tennessee Department of Transportation
Public hearings on highway plans often don't draw many more people than it takes to flip charts or run the projector.
But it was standing room only when state transportation officials on Wednesday outlined early plans to rebuild the overcrowded, dangerous Interstate 75-24 split.
And questions came thick and fast -- many from East Ridge officials -- after Steve Allen with the Tennessee Department of Transportation finished describing plans to build new lanes and bridges and redesign the entry and exit from the Tennessee Welcome Center just beyond the Ringgold Road cloverleaf.
State planners started with seven designs. Their preferred alternative, Allen said, is a $61 million plan that involves widening and flattening the north- and westbound lanes at the split and adding more lanes in each direction.
The I-24 entry lanes would be rebuilt so traffic merges into the right lane rather than the left, while access to and from the Tennessee Welcome Center would be significantly rearranged for better traffic flow, possibly from Ringgold Road rather than I-75. The welcome center entry ramp to the interstate would come in farther north with a smooth mergerer for westbound traffic.
How would all that affect access to East Ridge businesses, East Ridge Councilman Denny Manning wanted to know.
"We won't have any impact on any business," Allen said.
Well, would it be possible to move the whole welcome center, maybe into East Ridge, "so it can have a greater financial aspect in East Ridge?" Manning asked.
Not likely, Allen replied. Tennessee's welcome centers all have their own interstate access.
How much more land would the reconstruction take, asked Russ Elliott, principal broker for Luken Holdings. Luken subsidiary Osborn Enterprises owns a lot of the land to either side of I-75.
Little to none, Allen said, adding that most of the rebuilding would be done within the existing right of way.
Local resident Tim Lee was skeptical of the design. If TDOT's aim is to get more vehicles through the split faster and safer, they should have engineered the intersection for 70 mph, rather than 55 mph, he said.
"Aren't you just spending $100 million on a 40-year-old interchange that won't support 70 mph?" Lee asked.
And moving the welcome center ramps while leaving the old Ringgold Road cloverleaf in place doesn't solve the problem of "weaving" -- speeding and slowing traffic in the same lanes, he said.
Allen noted that I-75 and I-24 at the split have 55 mph limits and neither East Ridge nor Chattanooga has asked TDOT to include the cloverleaf in the redesign, which would up the cost, he said.
Lee argued that designing the split for higher speeds would have been worth the additional cost in land and environmental mitigation.
After the meeting, he added, "I agree that either option will be better than it is now."
Allen cautioned that the plan is very preliminary and hasn't been approved by the Federal Highway Administration.
If that happens, local planners would have to adopt it for funding, then go through engineering and environmental review studies.
His best guess for the start of construction, if all those steps go smoothly, is 2016.
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 ...