Local planners and the state Department of Transportation are going round and round about a roundabout.
TDOT is in the planning stages of a massive rebuild of U.S. Highway 27 between Interstate 24 and the Olgiati bridge, including the M.L. King Boulevard interchange.
The agency needs about a third of an acre of city-owned land off 12th Street behind the former James A. Henry School.
Staff members of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency don't have a problem with that. Earlier this month, RPA staff recommended the city declare the land surplus so TDOT can take it.
But in a comment on the recommendation, an unnamed planning staffer sniped about TDOT's design for the interchange, saying it doesn't follow recommendations in the city's Downtown Plan.
"In fact, the current design is much LESS pedestrian-friendly and takes more right of way," the comment states.
It quotes the Downtown Plan's call for more interchanges on U.S. 27 and better access between downtown and the Westside, extensive landscaping, frontage roads and a roundabout instead of an interchange at M.L. King.
What the writer apparently didn't know is that all those elements are in the design TDOT is working from.
Transportation Commissioner John Schroer said the agency has worked closely with local planners on a design that will showcase one of the city's main gateways and will meet local needs for access.
"My whole focus as TDOT commissioner is to stay really involved with local governments and listen to them when we design roads," said Schroer, a former mayor of Franklin, Tenn.
"And from a personal experience, my daughter is a student in Chattanooga and I use that interchange a lot when I come visit her," Schroer said Friday. "We want that [project] to be something that not only TDOT can be proud of but the city residents can be proud of."
RPA Executive Director John Bridger said Friday that perhaps the commenter hadn't seen recent versions of TDOT's plan. He agreed that the two agencies work closely and well together, and said that RPA had recommended the land transfer.
"There are elements in the Downtown Plan that were strongly supported and need to be addressed in the final design," he said. "It was just making sure those design elements were addressed."
REMAKING THE ROAD
The U.S. 27 rebuild through downtown is a few years off -- it won't start before work is finished on widening the highway from the north end of the Olgiati Bridge to Signal Mountain Road. The contract for that project is to be let Friday, and TDOT engineers estimate it will take about three years.
But when work moves to the downtown section, it's going to remake the 1960s-era highway and the M.L. King interchange completely.
The completed highway will have three lanes in each direction between I-24 and the Olgiati. New lanes will come off the southbound end of the bridge into a multilane frontage road. It will feature intersections at Fourth and Sixth streets with multiple turn lanes and a westbound ramp onto M.L. King just west of a roundabout. The plans call for broad sidewalks, roomy bike lanes and extensive landscaping.
At the interchange, the cloverleaf loops on the south side of M.L. King will remain for north- and southbound access to U.S. 27. But northbound vehicles using the cloverleaf will have their own traffic lane, which also will handle traffic exiting at Fourth Street. Northbound traffic entering on the curved ramp from westbound M.L. King will cross above the Fourth Street exit on a flyover and enter U.S. 27 almost at AT&T Field.
Closer to I-24, the northbound Main Street exit will be rerouted to empty onto Carter Street at 13th Street, eliminating a dangerously sharp curve.
TDOT Chief Engineer Paul Degges said the work is expected to take about three years and his best guess at a cost is $80 million.
Counting the Signal-to-Olgiati section, that's six years of roadwork. Degges said TDOT decided to go ahead and add some extra lanes to the Olgiati while the downtown work is going on.
Doing everything at once should lessen public frustration with long-lasting construction, Degges said.
"From the public's perspective, they will see one continuous construction project, and when we're done, we're done for good," he said.