Easing a tunnel bottleneck

Easing a tunnel bottleneck

February 17th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Chattanooga's roads and related infrastructure have many problems, but few are more vexing than those related to the Wilcox Tunnel in East Chattanooga. The aging structure is in increasingly poor repair, ill-suited to handle modern-day traffic and a growing impediment to travel and development. Costly remedies are available, but they must be pursued if traffic is to flow smoothly and the city to continue to mature. Members of the Chattanooga City Council know that, and took a positive step toward resolving the Wilcox Tunnel issues this week.

The council voted to apply for a $25 million federal grant to repair the existing tunnel and to construct a twin through Missionary Ridge. There's no certainty that the city will win the funds; an earlier application for a similar grant was rejected. Still, the application signifies a willingness to directly address a festering infrastructure issue.

Resolution won't come cheap. Even if the application wins favor, the city will have to come up with about $17 million in matching funds for the work to be completed. That's a lot of money, especially in the current economic climate, but there is really little choice other than making the investment. The return promises to be significant.

Repairs to the current structure and construction of an adjacent tunnel would relieve congestion on other routes through or around Missionary Ridge. It would increase traffic flow from Amnicola Highway along Wilcox Boulevard to Shallowford Road and improve access to the airport and growing areas in eastern Hamilton County. City and state planners embrace those plans.

The state is widening Shallowford Road on the tunnel's east side. The city has plans to widen Wilcox to four lanes from Amnicola to its junction with Shallowford. That work would serve little purpose if the tunnel bottleneck remains.

The tunnel is an impediment to movement from one side of Missionary Ridge to the other. The size of the tunnel, opened in 1931, makes travel difficult. Many motorists refuse to use the narrow roadway. Some vehicles simply can't use the tunnel. Some CARTA buses and fire and rescue vehicles, for example, are too big for passage. Bicycle and pedestrian access is limited, too.

Current plans call for the tunnel to be repaired, to carry one lane of eastbound traffic and to include a pedestrian walkway and bike path. The new tunnel would have two lanes and carry westbound traffic. That would provide reasonable resolution to a pressing issue.

The city needs a fully functional road-and-tunnel route from Amnicola Highway to the airport and beyond. Changing growth and traffic patterns mandate it. Members of the council should commit to repairing the Wilcox Tunnel and to building an adjacent one. If the federal government will help pay for it, that's welcome. If it does not, the city should do it on its own.