Government deems new Chattanooga federal courthouse a priority, but construction remains unfunded

Staff File Photo by Dan Henry / Chattanooga's federal courthouse was constructed in 1933 and first added to a General Services Administration list for replacement in 1999.

A new federal courthouse for Chattanooga, estimated to cost $157.3 million, is sitting atop a government ranking for potential future construction.

But when it comes to federal funding, the Chattanooga project is behind three other courthouse projects already locked in to receive money when it's available.

"We're on a list that has not received any funding," said U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice Jr., in Chattanooga.

A new federal building to replace the existing 84-year-old structure at Georgia Avenue and M.L. King Boulevard has been a dream of local officials for nearly two decades.

FEDERAL COURTHOUSE PROJECT LIST

Fiscal year 2018 courthouse construction funding priorities:* 1. Harrisburg, Pa.* 2. Huntsville, Ala.* 3. Fort Lauderdale, Fla.Out-year courthouse construction priorities:* 1. Chattanooga* 2. San Juan, Puerto Rico* 3. Norfolk, Va.Source: Federal Judiciary Courthouse Project Priorities List

"Chattanooga desperately needs a new federal courthouse," Mattice said. "We're trying to remain as vigilant as we can within the federal judiciary as well as communicate with our congressional delegation."

Security and space concerns, building flooding and leaks, and aging infrastructure are among reasons cited for replacement.

The 2016 edition of the Federal Judiciary Courthouse Project Priorities List is in two parts: One lists three cities that are locked in for funding as it's available; the other, which includes Chattanooga, shows cities that are priorities but unfunded.

Mattice said Chattanooga's top spot on the unfunded side could slip if it doesn't move into the other group.

Delegations representing other projects behind Chattanooga are trying to leapfrog the Scenic City, he said.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said he supports a new federal courthouse for Chattanooga.

Fleischmann, who sits on the key House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement that he looks forward to working with President Donald Trump as Congress makes decisions about the budget.

He said the president has proposed a preliminary budget and "I applaud him for wanting to further invest in infrastructure and our military."

Todd Womack, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker's chief of staff, said the senator, as a Chattanoogan, understands the need for a new federal courthouse.

"Chattanooga is currently listed on the Federal Judiciary Courthouse Project Priorities List, and we continue to closely monitor developments," said Womack.

Courthouse construction funds are placed in the budget, but Mattice said sometimes Congress unexpectedly approves money, as it did a couple of years ago when a number of sites received funding.

In Tennessee, Nashville got the green light for a new federal courthouse after a more-than-two-decade effort. Late last year, a contract was awarded for demolition of a former state office building at Church Street and Rosa Parks Boulevard to make way for construction of that city's $193.5 million courthouse.

The Chattanooga federal courthouse, built in 1933, was first added to a General Services Administration list for replacement in 1999.

"This current building is a beautiful old building," Mattice said. "We all love it, but it's old."

In 2002, then-city council chairman Ron Littlefield and former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp talked about using the nearby Civic Forum block between Market and Broad streets and 10th and 11th streets as the site of a new federal courthouse.

However, Mattice said that block was later determined to not have enough setbacks from the streets to satisfy security needs.

He said several potential sites have been identified but none has been chosen. He declined to say where they are, so as not to drive land speculation, but he said they're all within a mile of the central business district.

He said the existing federal courthouse was built at a time when electrification of the Tennessee Valley was considered modern technology.

"It's ill-suited to house judges and support staff to run a modern federal courthouse," Mattice said. "Security is not anywhere near the modern level of security required."

Contact Mike Pare at [email protected] or 423-757-6318.