The Chattanooga City Council voted unanimously earlier this week to apply for a $25-million federal grant that would help fund construction of a new two-lane tunnel through Missionary Ridge adjacent to the current Wilcox Tunnel on Wilcox Boulevard in East Chattanooga. There's little doubt that a new tunnel is needed -- it has been on the city's wish list for years -- but winning the grant will not instantly resolve all the issues related to traffic flow in that part of the city.
The grant would not cover the entire cost of a new tunnel, currently estimated to be about $42 million. The city, of course, would have to underwrite the difference. In difficult economic times when pressure on city funds to pay for other vital infrastructure improvements, especially sewers, is extraordinary, doing so could be a problem.
Richard Beeland, spokesman for Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, said Thursday that the city was prepared to meet the additional costs of the new tunnel if the federal grant materializes. "There's some money in the capital budget for a tunnel already and more will be added in the coming years. It should be enough." Even if financial obligations can be met, a new tunnel will require considerable short and long-term planning and the expenditure of additional, perhaps considerable, funds in the future.
To be sure, a new tunnel that would provide two lanes for eastbound traffic through Missionary Ridge would be welcome. It would do little, however, to ease the problems related to traffic flowing west on Wilcox Boulevard toward Amnicola Highway. Vehicles headed in that direction would still have to use the current tunnel, and that's a problem.
The existing tunnel is serviceable, but barely. It is narrow, dark, too short for many vehicles, including firetrucks and buses, and in deteriorating condition. If a new tunnel is built, the current two-lane tube would be cut down to one lane of traffic. That would provide a bit more maneuverability for drivers who now worry about sideswiping another vehicle as they traverse the confines of the tunnel now in use.
If the grant is awarded, construction would begin in September, 2013, and would have to be completed by September, 2016. That timetable doesn't give the city much leeway to prepare for construction. Land acquisition, for example, could pose a problem. The greater issue, though, is the eventual construction of a fully functional road-and-tunnel route from Amnicola Highway to the airport and beyond. Changing growth and traffic patterns mandate such a route.
The state is widening some roads west of the ridge to expedite that process. The city has plans but no date to widen Wilcox Boulevard to four lanes from Amnicola Highway to Shallowford Road. Still, that's a start. So is the application for a grant for a new tunnel.
Given that, applying for federal funds makes sense. As Councilman Russell Gilbert, who represents the area says, there's no reason to leave money on the table that could help fund the building of a new tunnel. Indeed, the possibility of winning the grant should spur officials to expedite planning for a new and major east-west route through the city.