Central Avenue extension first sought in larger, 1960s plan

Central Avenue extension first sought in larger, 1960s plan

February 15th, 2014 in Opinion Free Press

If Lincoln Park residents are still taking a wait-and-see attitude about the proposed Central Avenue extension to connect that road with Amnicola Highway, they must have been delighted with the 1960s and 1970s plan for what was long called the Central Avenue freeway.

The proposed extension, which would allow quicker access from the north end of the county to Erlanger hospital and for Lincoln Park residents to the Tennessee Riverwalk, got a big push in October when a land swap -- still being fine-tuned -- was worked out between the hospital and the city. But some residents, after initially expressing satisfaction with the plan, later had reservations.

The hospital would swap 5.3 acres it owns in the neighborhood, behind the hospital, for about eight acres in Alton Park that would be used for the construction of a new Southside health center.

Jeff Cannon, chief innovation officer for Mayor Andy Berke, said in October plans for the estimated $6 million project won't likely be ready until 2016.

"This is a long, long process," Lacie Stone, the mayor's spokeswoman, said Friday.

The next step, she said, is a March study by the federal government in conjunction with the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires an environmental impact statement that covers the property. Community input will be invited.

Plans call for the Central Avenue extension to be a tree-lined, streetscaped boulevard that would be more than eight feet from the actual Lincoln Park, which in pre-desegregation days had a swimming pool, ball fields, an amusement park and zoo.

"It's a big deal," Stone said. "It's a really cool neighborhood -- isolated -- but a very tight neighborhood. People care about it tremendously. We want to be sure they are positively impacted by a connection that is done in a way that preserves the park."

Fifty years ago last month, plans were very different.

In January 1964, the city asked that a proposed $17 million Central freeway be made part of the Interstate highway system. The freeway would have run from near the present Rossville Boulevard exit to Central Avenue and northward along the Central Avenue route to the Tennessee River and then by bridge across to North Chattanooga and Hixson Pike.

"We already feel the need for a bridge," said then-city Commissioner A.L. Bender, who had sought such a corridor since 1962. "... especially since our medical centers are near it."

If the freeway had been declared part of the interstate system, the federal government would have paid 90 percent of costs and the state 10 percent.

It was the 1960s, after all, when President Lyndon Johnson had a blank check for the Vietnam War, Medicare, Medi-

caid and, heck, interstate highways.

By 1968, what was termed by a Chattanooga Post article as "the biggest single public works project ever undertaken in Chattanooga" -- then up to $24 million -- was on the way to reality if an interstate expansion bill in Congress passed, according to Bender.

He noted it would be a feeder road for the new University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and enable emergency vehicles to reach the hospital 10 to 15 minutes faster. Completion by 1974 was estimated.

Later in 1968, Gov. Buford Ellington told a gathering of Democrats the freeway "will be built." By then, it also was proposed the freeway could continue south to the Georgia line, where it would connect with another highway.

By 1974, the year completion had been estimated, officials said it would be at least five years before any building would begin but that 75 to 80 percent of the project would be federally funded.

In December of that year, the plan still had the freeway running from near the Georgia state line to I-24, then along a route west of the present Central Avenue to Amnicola Highway, then east or west of Amnicola Highway to the new bridge over the river, which would become the C.B. Robinson Bridge.

At that meeting, Commissioner Steve Conrad brought up the threat to Lincoln Park-- perhaps the first time it had been mentioned in meetings -- but was told the freeway might be able to avoid the park, or that the park could be moved.

However, in 1976, the portion of the project extending to Georgia -- called the West Georgia Toll Road -- had been put on the back burner. Finally, in 1978, a review by Federal Highway Administration officials deemed the Central freeway too environmentally disruptive and too expensive. Its price of $75 million, which no longer tied in the Tennessee River bridge and was to be borne by only 70 percent federal funds, was "beyond any foreseeable source of funding."

In time, the Robinson and Veterans bridges became the spans long sought in the project, and Dupont Parkway would link the Robinson bridge to Highway 153. Central Avenue, though, has remained a narrow four lanes and Amnicola Highway four lanes, but getting from one to the other still involves a plethora of stoplights and several turns.

When -- and if -- the Central Avenue extension comes, it will be welcome.