Cook: Congested area ahead

Cook: Congested area ahead

February 23rd, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

It is rush hour Friday and I'm leaving downtown and headed north into the heart of Chattanooga road construction: across the Olgiati Bridge, up the road dividing what's left of Stringer's Ridge, and onto the exit ramp toward Red Bank and Signal Mountain.

Give me Seabiscuit and we cover this in 10 minutes, 12 tops. But in my car, surrounded by all of you in your cars, traveling these three miles takes, oh how shall we say this, longer.

We Americans are built for speed -- Apollo 11, Pony Express, gig cities -- not traffic jams. I cuss. Itch. Fiddle. My impatience is impatient.

Earlier in the day, I spoke with Jennifer Flynn, Tennessee's Department of Transportation spokeswoman. It left me with two competing thoughts: it will all be worth it in the end, and things will get worse before they get better.

5:30 p.m., approaching AT&T Field: work began on the project 769 days ago -- on Jan. 17, 2012 -- and is expected to end 364 days from today.

"February 22 of 2015," Flynn said.

That's 1,133 total days, just shy of the half-life of carbon. And this is only the first phase.

Planners want to widen Olgiati Bridge (second phase) and then straighten the road between downtown and I-24 (third phase).

If things go as planned, and here's saying they won't, the Olgiati Widening and the I-24 Straightening would take about three years to complete. If funding is delayed, and here's saying it will be, that means that TDOT construction may last through 2020.

Third-graders, the road work will be done by the time you get your license.

A few minutes and 100 yards later: the whole shebang will cost about $200 million, Flynn said; it's an amount equivalent to ...

• In-state tuition at UT-Chattanooga for more than 33,000 students.

• Art teachers in every Hamilton County elementary school for the next 100 years.

• A $2,800 check for each of the 70,000 drivers that travel that road daily.

• Gobs of repairs done on College Hill Courts, the housing project a stone's throw from the construction.

"Roadways and bridges, like people, have a life span," she said. "You have to maintain and make improvements."

She's right.

Plus, part of the TDOT plan would completely rebuild the entrance to downtown. If city entrances are like the Hello My Name Is stickers you wear at parties, ours is crinkled, outdated and nearly illegible.

The new entrance would be proper and poetic.

"Something the whole community can be proud of," said Flynn.

The feds cover most of the cost (90% for phase one, 80% for phases two and three) with the state doing the rest. TDOT will know this spring if phases two and three -- currently unfunded -- receive funding.

Traffic opens up like the Red Sea, then stops again: we in our cars are like the two old Muppets who complain and mock from the balcony. Most of us moan and groan our way through the traffic jam each afternoon.

But hard-hatting their way through the rain, sleet, heat and snow are the builders, architects and earth-movers behind all of this. My Legos won't even stand straight. They're, literally, moving mountains. To use Dave Eggers' line: theirs is a work of staggering genius.

"They're working really hard out there," Flynn said.

5:37 p.m., across the bridge: what's it like on Gunbarrel Road right now?

It's not as if this 3-mile stretch is our town's only headache; pretty much anywhere in East Brainerd is one unending traffic jam. When does TDOT turn their way?

Traffic grinds to a halt: I just survived the part of the road I've nicknamed the Narrows: that stretch of zig-zag, barriers-on-all-sides section of road that runs between the two sides of Stringer's Ridge. It's thin. It's curvy. It's the Kate Upton of road traffic construction.

Now comes the temporary exit ramp onto Signal Mountain Boulevard. It's slow. It's boring. It's the PGA Tour of road construction.

"Why don't you write a column about the $@#% exit ramp?" my friend said.

Flynn, who's been chewed out more than Juicy Fruit over this exit ramp, has good news: an improved, finalized ramp should be done by the end of March, with two free-flowing lanes toward Signal Mountain and a separate lane to Red Bank.

"Progress can be really painful at times," she said. "But if people will just bear with us, they will really like the end result. One day, they will look back and think, 'How did we ever live without that road?'"

5:45 p.m., at the end of the exit ramp: I look at my watch: 15 minutes, 3 miles.

Hey, at least we're not Atlanta.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.