The state could start buying property to widen and straighten U.S. Highway 27 from Interstate 24 to the Olgiati Bridge at the end of this year, but the actual construction could be years off, officials say.
Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn said there's no construction money now, but land acquisition will begin in the fall and move quickly.
"It should be completed (within) nine months," Mrs. Flynn said.
The plans call for straightening some of the S curves that approach the bridge and for building longer entrance and exit ramps, Mrs. Flynn said. The project includes new frontage roads and a new entrance to 13th Street.
Mrs. Flynn said it could be three to four years before construction starts.
The project has been on the drawing board for years.
In 1996, TDOT's plans for the project drew opposition from the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Chamber of Commerce and numerous other residents.
The latest plans were presented to the public almost two years ago. At the time, officials predicted right-of-way acquisition would begin this year.
Mrs. Flynn said last week that $3.4 million is budgeted to begin acquiring 18 tracts of land along U.S. 27 next year. The actual cost won't be known until the state negotiates settlements with landowners.
Geological testing to determine the structure and composition of the underlying structures is under way. Results will be incorporated into the right-of-way plan.
The state will buy Dr. Charles Holt's dental office on Carter Street to make room for the new 13th Street exit and a small portion of the First Baptist Church's overflow parking lot, Mrs. Flynn said. The rest of the acquisitions will be small portions along the highway, she said.
She said about 10 retaining walls will be built to minimize having to buy more property. But that proposal has faced scrutiny.
Jerry Adams, an accountant for Joseph Decosimo and Co., said last week that he was chairman of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce when the first plans came out in 1996.
Mr. Adams said he and the Chamber opposed those plans at the time and, if the walls were still in the plan, he would still oppose them.
Using retaining walls along U.S. 27 could "divide" the downtown area, he said. After so much work over the years to make downtown a gem for tourists and residents, the walls could blemish the city's visual beauty.
"They said they were going to make the concrete walls look nice, but I don't know if you can make concrete walls look nice," Mr. Adams said.
Dr. Holt said last week he has owned his building for 10 years but is planning to move.
He acknowledges the need for the project but said the uncertainty over how long it will take to acquire the property puts him in a minor bind.
"It would be nice if there were strict timetables," he said.
Dr. Holt said he is part of a business venture to move to an office being developed on Riverfront Parkway. If the acquisition takes too long, it could halt those plans, he said.
"I'm making plans and they are not concrete," he said.
TDOT officials said 90 percent of the project will be paid for with federal funds and 10 percent will come from the state.
Mayor Ron Littlefield said he knows the state is in a cash crunch. But he said that, for economic development purposes, the highway needs straightening for truck traffic coming in and out of downtown. The plans have been in the works for at least 20 years, he said.
"I hope it's not too many years ahead," Mr. Littlefield said. "It's time for action."
BY THE NUMBERS
* 18: Property acquisitions needed to straighten and widen U.S. Highway 27
* 1.4: Mileage of project from Interstate 24 to Olgiati Bridge
* 1: Number of businesses affected by the project
Source: Tennessee Department of Transportation