Work to begin widening and straightening U.S. Highway 27 from Interstate 24 to Signal Mountain Boulevard could begin by September.
Tennessee Department of Transportation officials said the first phase of a three-phase project to widen the stretch of road that runs for three miles through downtown, across Olgiati Bridge and through Stringer's Ridge will begin in the fall. The highway will be widened from six lanes to eight.
The first phase will be widening the 1.6 miles of U.S. Highway 27 from Olgiati Bridge to Signal Mountain Boulevard, a project estimated to cost about $75 million, said Jennifer Flynn, TDOT spokeswoman.
"It's complicated," Jennifer Flynn said.
Ken Flynn, TDOT's regional construction manager, said motorists can expect orange barrels for a couple of years.
"It's a huge project," he said. "So, you're talking 21/2 to three years. Maybe more."
More retaining walls will be built, a portion between Olgiati Bridge and Interstate 24 must be straightened and brand-new overpasses will be built.
No money has been set aside for the other two phases - widening Olgiati Bridge and widening and straightening the highway from the bridge to Interstate 24. However, rights of way have been acquired and public meetings were held to present the designs of the major highway's reconstruction.
Mayor Ron Littlefield said last week he sees some hope that at least one portion of the highway could get started this year. But just one portion does not solve potential traffic congestion in the future, he said.
"I think it's gone painfully slow," he said. "We were talking about this 15 years ago, and we're still not there yet."
TDOT officials said an estimated 50,000 cars travel the stretch of road daily. That's expected to increase to 70,000 by 2030.
In the past, Littlefield has said the highway needs widening to help support dramatic expansions under way by some companies in the area, such as Alstom.
But others have their own concerns.
Councilman Andraé McGary, who represents the downtown area, said people living in the Westside have fears about being cut off from downtown.
There is an entrance ramp from the Westside to U.S. Highway 27, but no exit ramp to Westside, he said. A year ago, he went to some of the highway's design meetings and saw nothing that alleviated his concerns, he said.
"You can get on, you can't get off," McGary said. "It's get out of Dodge."
Overall, all three phases of widening the highway will cost more than $160 million.
The other two phases are waiting to be placed in TDOT's three-year transportation plan, where they may be able to receive federal dollars, officials said.
All the changes are needed, said Councilwoman Deborah Scott, who represents the area on the north side of Olgiati Bridge. There has been a lot of growth in Soddy-Daisy and Sequatchie County, with many residents of those areas commuting to and from downtown, she said.
"You pass through it in the morning and it's just car to car," she said.
Crews are collecting core samples to see how the ground will be able to hold the expansion of the highway. Workers also are identifying clusters of the mineral iron pyrite, which must be removed because they could cause acid runoff into area streams.
Littlefield said he knows the transportation department has faced funding crunches as gas tax revenues continue to decline and dollars cannot be stretched as far as they previously could.
But he said there also is an expense for waiting.
"The longer we wait, the more traffic builds up, the more expensive it is," he said.
Ken Flynn said the reality of the situation is that there simply hasn't been enough money.
"I wish it were done 10 year ago when traffic was less," he said. "But you've got to have the money to do it."
Contact Cliff Hightower at chightower@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6480. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CliffHightower.