published Saturday, November 17th, 2012

North Hamilton County toll bridge is feasible, study finds

A long-awaited study has found that a toll bridge across the Tennessee River in north Hamilton County is economically feasible, Tennessee's transportation commissioner says.

But Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer said a feasibility finding doesn't automatically mean there's a new bridge coming.

"We're continuing to move down that path," Schroer said Thursday after speaking to the Rotary Club in Chattanooga.

The study will be unveiled Dec. 5 for members of a Hamilton County Commission-appointed toll committee, and two public hearings will be held sometime after that, according to TDOT.

Several area officials said they're eager to hear details.

"That's the most positive comment I've heard in either the Haslam or the Bredesen administrations on the project," said state House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican.

"I'd like to see details, like how much the toll would be, and get feedback from the public. It would certainly be nice to have a bridge across the river. It would certainly help economic development," McCormick said.

As of June 2011, the focus was on a bridge and highway linking U.S. Highway 27 at Sequoyah Access Road to Interstate 75. TDOT was considering two choices for the I-75 end: South on Highway 58 and east through Enterprise South industrial park for an estimated $236 million, or across Highway 58 and south on Ooltewah-Georgetown Road at about $305 million.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, chairman of the toll committee, said a bridge is "a long way from being a reality and everybody understands that."

"It's not something I think we should anticipate anything this week, this month or this year, but somewhere out there in the future it could help all of Hamilton County, especially the Soddy-Daisy, Birchwood and Bakewell areas," Coppinger said.

Local officials have wanted a new bridge and highway to make it easier for people in the north end of the county to reach I-75. Those people now must drive south to Chattanooga or north to Highway 60.

Toll bridges and highways are a new idea for Tennessee, which has built transportation infrastructure on a pay-as-you-go basis.

In 2007, the Tennessee Legislature passed a bill authorizing a study of two toll projects. Former state Rep. Jim Cobb, a Spring City Republican whose District 31 included part of northern Hamilton County, pushed to get the local project included for consideration.

Cobb said he's "very proud" the study has borne out his idea that a much-needed bridge could pay for itself from user fees.

"People have the option to use it or not use it," Cobb said Friday. "The fact that it's not costing the taxpayer and [that] studies prove there's a way to pay for it without using taxpayer funds is what we need for the economic quagmire we're in now."

State Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, said the local community and the nation are going to have to "start thinking outside the box" about new ways to fund needed transportation projects given shrinking fuel tax revenues and tight budgets.

"I don't see any movement in the House this year to raise the gas tax," he said.

A toll project could be an example of just that kind of thinking, Dean said.

"I'm excited to see the figures that they've got," he said. "That's always been one of my concerns, that it would be financially viable. When you have a private company coming in to build it, that's going to be their front question, whether it's financially sustainable."

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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