An artery for the city's heart

An artery for the city's heart

March 18th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Few area residents would disagree that the current form of U.S. Highway 27, as it loops around the west side of downtown from Interstate 24 to Olgiati Bridge, is a tricky, obsolete, inadequate and often dangerous stretch of highway. As a vital artery that carries upwards of 70,000 vehicles a day, the bulk of them entering and exiting downtown, the expressway merits a major redesign.

In rush hour, the chief risks derive from the snake-like curves and the conflicting on-and-off ramps that slow traffic and, worse, that jam simultaneously merging and exiting vehicles together, on both sides of the highway, between Martin Luther King Boulevard and Fourth Street. Remodeling to straighten out the curves, redesign the on-and-off road network, and create an orderly flow of that traffic into and out of town, is long overdue.

Yet finding a consensus on what a redesign should look like is almost as difficult as negotiating Highway 27 at peak rush hour. A plan developed by the Tennessee Department of Transportation roughly 20 years ago foundered on local dissent. Now, a new $80 million TDOT plan appears on course for approval

No consensus yet

Yet the same major obstacles remain unresolved: the shape and flow of traffic at the major intersections of MLK Boulevard and Fourth Street; pedestrian access from the west side of the expressway to the heart of downtown; and the design of the high retaining walls and separation barriers along the highway that hugs -- or chokes -- the city at its tight nexus with the high stump of a sawed-off Cameron Hill, and other points along the expressway.

Less conflict attends the most southern portion of the 1.5 mile course of U.S. 27 from I-24 to Olgiati Bridge. Perhaps that's because the confusing junction of southbound I-24 to U.S. 27 leading into downtown Chattanooga from Moccasin Bend is work left to the distant future.

(Though surely many more tourists would jump off for a quick visit downtown if, as they came around Moccasin Bend, they could know, in time, to get into the middle right-hand lane and duck blindly under the I-24 overpass to get to downtown. Maybe TDOT can install well-defined directional signage to fix this old problem some time this decade.)

The Times Free Press has arranged an easily accessible computer file -- timesfreepress.com/27reconstruction -- for readers to follow a layout of the plan. Blown up to a 125 percent focus, the names of the intersecting roadways and the locations of embankments, retaining walls and fenced portions become more legible.

The file is worth study for its representation of the long frontage roads that would be built on both sides of Highway 27 to serve as long exit and entrance ramps from downtown intersections. Equally interesting is the west side roundabout on MLK Boulevard that would handle southbound traffic off the frontage road that begins at Olgiati Bridge, for traffic exiting both to 4th Street and MLK Boulevard.

Roundabout a problem

This roundabout is particularly problematic because it badly complicates, if not denies, pedestrian traffic to and from housing on the intensively populated west side. The best solution would be to build pedestrian bridges on opposite sides of U.S. 27, but TDOT's plan does not propose that. Instead, it suggests a number of crossings by the roundabout, which would be tricky for pedestrians and would hamper smooth traffic flow for motorists.

On the east, or downtown, side of Highway 27, the northbound frontage road entry to U.S. 27 from MLK Boulevard would soar over Sixth and Fourth Streets, before merging with traffic from Fourth to Olgiati Bridge.

These frontage roads would eliminate the current merging and off-ramp conflicts. But they would also require new rights of way purchases and higher retaining walls on the west side, and eat up some developable land on the east side.

The tall retaining walls that would line parts of the remodeled highway demand public insistence on aesthetic, artistic walls to enhance the city's expressway, rather than degrade it.

TDOT officials seem sympathetic to ideas to mitigate the potential harshness of a freeway concrete canyon that would be inimical to the city's image and economic interests. But a firm commitment on this point must be a priority for local leaders.

Aesthetic approach vital

If compatible resolutions to these issues can be achieved, the benefit of the proposed redesign would be significant. The proposed frontage roads do not reach the higher model of the boulevard concept proposed by city planners 20 years ago to soften the harsh edges of the design the state then proposed. But with close attention to aesthetic landscaping and green space, they could prove to be acceptable, even beautiful.

The community's residents and leaders have a huge stake in the ultimate design of the expressway, and certainly more personal interest than Nashville's TDOT managers. But state and TDOT officials have begun to recognize the economic value of aesthetic design and pedestrian rights in our joint economic future. If that mindset rules, a remodeled Highway 27 downtown would serve the city well.