Downtown highway becoming a hot spot for accidents

Vehicles travel near a new support structure at the Fourth Street exit on U.S. Highway 27 on Friday, Aug. 18, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Construction on the section of highway from the Olgiati Bridge to I-24 is the most expensive project in TDOT history with a $126.3 million contract.

From July 8 to Aug. 9, 48 crashes were reported along the downtown stretch of Highway 27 - a number nearly three times higher than during the same time frame the year prior.

According to the Chattanooga Police Department Crime Analysis Unit, the CPD responded to 18 highway crashes in the area between the Fourth Street and M.L. King Boulevard exits in 2016.

As the Tennessee Department of Transportation works to widen the highway, lane changes and new signage have been fraught with difficulties and frustrations. Now, with new signage requiring stops instead of yields in order to merge onto the highway from downtown, both CPD and TDOT hope to see the number of crashes decrease.

The new signs, installed last week, are meant to curb what has become a growing issue since the retooling of on-ramps from downtown removed what little bit of a merge lane previously existed.

"Whenever we do a big traffic shift, it takes time for people to get used to. But in this case, they just aren't getting it," said TDOT Community Relations Officer Jennifer Flynn. "People are expecting to merge like they used to."

Though most of the accidents since the lane changes went into effect July 8 have been rear-end collisions and considered minor, Flynn said any dramatic increase in numbers is an issue to address.

"... We know that any crash you're involved in, if you're involved in it, is not minor," she said.

The new entrance ramp signage requiring a stop will remain in place for approximately one year, until the road widening is complete, Flynn said. The new road will consist of three travel lanes in each direction, with one to two dedicated lanes for traffic entering/exiting the roadway.

Though Flynn acknowledged the frustration of slower traffic and delays in the meantime due to the stop-and-go nature of trying to merge from a full stop, it is one of two options for the roughly 2-mile stretch of roadway that nearly 70,000 vehicles utilize each day.

"The only other alternative we have would be to totally close those access points. And due to volume on that road, that wouldn't work well," she said. "We can't change the way the road is right now [to merge from entrance ramps downtown] but we're changing the way people will have to respond to it."

Once the middle portion of the roadway is completed next year, the traffic pattern will again change and the widened road will improve traffic flow through the area. In the meantime, Flynn advised caution on the road, or taking an alternate route through the city to avoid potential collisions during peak driving hours each morning and evening during the workweek when the road is most congested with those headed to or from work.

"Sometimes with progress comes pain, but it will be a lot better," she said.