Strategies for the Wilcox Boulevard Tunnel are moving beyond studies and temporary patching to actionable plans for a permanent solution, according to Mayor Ron Littlefield.
"The Wilcox Tunnel is something I've been working on a long, long time," Littlefield told North Brainerd Road residents during a recent public meeting. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step - every time we face this journey we've stepped back and said, let's just patch it again. I've patched it plenty of times over the years."
He said he first began looking at the problem of the leaky, dark and small tunnel when he worked as the Public Works commissioner.
The most recent 'patching' included a thorough cleaning of the interior and the addition of new energy-efficient LED lighting and extra safety measures.
Littlefield said the city considered the needs of the Wilcox Tunnel when creating last year's capital budget, appropriating $808,971 to hire engineering firm Halcrow to come up with a viable plan for the tunnel. The firm could recommend the city widen the current tunnel, create a secondary two-lane tunnel forming a set of passages similar to the Missionary Ridge Tunnels, or create a new four-lane tunnel and use the old as a pedestrian walkway.
"I'm glad they are looking at more than just maintenance, looking at the future," said Cynthia Stanley-Cash, president of the North Brainerd Neighborhood Association. She said she believes there is still room for improvement in the meantime when it comes to tunnel upkeep. "The walls should be cleaned regularly; it shouldn't be as trashy and lights shouldn't be out."
Littlefield said he can't give a timeline for the project, nor a cost estimate until the assessment is completed by Halcrow, but he stressed this is the closest the city has come in its overall plan for creating a fluid east-west access route.
"I'm in the neighborhood," said Littlefield, who lives off Germantown Road. "I've driven through this more times than most people. It's still the tunnel it always was. We can paint it, put lights in it and do all kinds of things, but there's a saying, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig."
Littlefield encourages residents to call 3-1-1 when lights are out or any other problems arise in the tunnel.