I-24 interchange improvement project at South Broad, Market streets making 'substantial progress'

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / A new ramp is taking shape alongside Interstate 24 where crews are working on the Tennessee Department of Transportation's $32 million improvement project at the South Broad interchange.

A new ramp is taking shape alongside Interstate 24 in Chattanooga, where crews are working on the $32 million improvement project at the interchanges with South Broad and Market streets.

Charleston, Tennessee-based Wright Brothers Construction started the work in the fall of 2020 with completion slated for Aug. 31, 2023, Tennessee Department of Transportation spokesperson Rae-Anne Bradley said Friday by email. There have been no cost increases, she said.

"The contractor has made substantial progress during the first year of construction, and the project remains on schedule," Bradley said, noting Wright Brothers "encountered some minor utility issues, but nothing that has caused delays in the project up to this point."

Joe Deering, assistant chief engineer and director of TDOT's Region 2, said local state officials are "excited the project is underway."

"Once completed, the project will improve connectivity to the historic foundry district and the South Broad commercial corridor and make it much easier for both local and regional traffic to safely access this area," Deering said Friday in an emailed statement to the Times Free Press.

The red dirt currently so visible to traffic on I-24 approaching the city from the west is the foundation of the off-ramp being constructed on the south side of I-24 between the old Wheland Foundry site and the Tennessee River. It will bridge over Chestnut Street and the Riverwalk at the old foundry site as it leads motorists onto a new, 1.6-mile-long frontage road that will parallel I-24 and cross signaled intersections at South Broad, Williams Street and then Market Street, where traffic headed east on I-24 will take a new on-ramp to get back on the interstate near the Howard School.

(READ MORE: Multimillion-dollar townhouse project planned in Chattanooga's South Broad District)

The contractor over the next week plans to close lanes on I-24 at night to work on the installation of new overhead signs, Bradley said. Passersby will see crews working on the construction of two bridges and several retaining walls in the area between Chestnut and Broad streets, she said. There is also some ongoing utility work throughout the project.

"The off-ramps should not change from their current configuration until summer of 2022, when the new eastbound I-24 ramp to Broad Street will open to allow for demolition of the existing ramp," Bradley said.

"During this phase of construction, southbound U.S. 27 south traffic will access Broad Street via a detour route on Williams Street and West 25th Street," she said. "In early 2023, the new U.S. 27 south ramp will open, and the contractor will begin work on the final segment of the new frontage road between Broad Street and Williams Street."

PROJECT TIMELINE

Let to contract: June 26, 2020.Contractor: Wright Brothers Construction Co.Bid price: $32 million.Estimated completion: August 2023.Source: Tennessee Department of Transportation

HISTORIC SEGMENT

More than 50 years ago, I-24 in Chattanooga was celebrated as the first completed section of interstate in any Tennessee metropolitan area, according to Times Free Press archives.

The U.S. interstate system created by the Federal Aid Highway Act signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 has become an integral part of the American way of life, according to Federal Highway Administration historical records. Every person in the nation has been touched by the system, if not directly as motorists, then indirectly because every item Americans buy has been on the interstate system at some point. Eisenhower considered it one of the most important achievements of his two terms in office and historians agree, according to federal officials.

Before I-24 was built in the 1960s, motorists traveling between Nashville and Atlanta mostly used U.S. Highway 41 to get around the base of Lookout Mountain and pass through Missionary Ridge via the Bachman Tubes tunnels heading through East Ridge and into Georgia.

(READ MORE: Ocoee River 'signature' bridge on track for spring 2022 finish)

The existing piece of I-24 across Missionary Ridge toward Tiftonia that was under construction through the 1960s also included considerable work to open other highways and streets - including widening projects on Brainerd Road and Dayton Pike in Chattanooga, considered a "distribution center" in the South at the time because of all the road work to improve traffic flow and "bring a rising tide of tourists and pour millions of dollars into the economy here," the Chattanooga Times reported in January 1966 as the section of I-24 from Missionary Ridge to Lookout Mountain was officially opened. Ribbon-cutting ceremonies reportedly drew as many as 2,000 people.

Tennessee's governor at the time and local leaders viewed the four-lane stretch of asphalt as a major entrance to the Deep South.

"We are here to dedicate a gateway. The opening of I-24 in Chattanooga will make this the true gateway to Florida," then-Gov. Frank Clement said during the dedication event. Clement noted the crowd for the ceremonies was the largest he'd seen at such an event.

In the 1960s the section of the new interstate where the current project to improve the interchanges at South Broad and Market streets was called the "big scramble" for its sprawling design. At the time, that section of road was called Interstate 124 but over the years officials began calling it by its present name for convenience, TDOT officials have said.

The traffic count in that area in 1966 had increased from 37,000 to 51,000 per day, archives show.

PROJECT EXTRAS

— Williams Street will be altered to accommodate two-way traffic.— Long Street will be closed to all vehicle traffic. A cul-de-sac will be constructed to provide access to homes and businesses near the 25th Street intersection.— 26th Street will not be affected.— Howard School traffic will maintain access to Market Street and I-24.— Existing loops and ramps serving westbound lanes of I-24 and northbound lanes of U.S. 27, located north of I-24 in the same area, will have only minor adjustments. Traffic flow will not be impacted.— Construction also includes grading, drainage and paving throughout the project limits, as well as the addition of bridges, retaining walls, signals and lighting.Source: Tennessee Department of Transportation

THE GATEWAY

Now the traffic count in the same "gateway" area of I-24 ranges between about 60,000 per day west of the city to well over 90,000 per day between Missionary Ridge and the U.S. 27 interchange, according to 2020 TDOT traffic data. Data from 2021 shows Broad Street's traffic count at nearly 29,000 vehicles a day.

"The area around I-24 near Exit 178 is often seen as the gateway to Chattanooga from the west," Bradley said.

Over the years as that original stretch of interstate aged and traffic increased, the loops and ramps that serve as exits and entrances of I-24 and U.S. 27 to areas south of the city became outdated, according to TDOT. The project also answers needs in the community where the work is taking place.

"The south side of Chattanooga has been blighted since the closure of the U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site," TDOT's project information states.

Currently, the county and city are working with developers to revitalize the area, which would increase traffic flow.

The project aims to improve the safety and operation of the interstate, as well as provide improved access to U.S. 27, Broad and Market streets and other points on the south side of the city. The updated interchanges will accommodate current and future traffic demands, promote economic growth and support area redevelopment, officials said.

(READ MORE: U.S. 27 beautification project split into two phases because of scarcity, costs of plants, trees)

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, was happy to see the project staying on track and looks forward to seeing traffic flow improve in South Chattanooga as it leads to future projects to widen I-24 west of the city. Gardenhire believes cooperative efforts between the state and city are continuing to improve.

The new ramp taking shape "sits a lot higher than the existing road so it's going to be interesting to see how they build up the roadway to match that new mound of dirt," Gardenhire said Friday in a telephone interview.

Gardenhire noted the frontage road design on the project appeared similar to the southbound off-ramp on U.S. 27 at the end of the Olgiati Bridge that leads to Fourth Street, West Sixth Street and M.L. King Boulevard in the improvement project downtown completed earlier this year.

(READ MORE: Cleveland's $54 million State Route 60 widening project breaks ground)

He said another portion of associated work on I-24 will be in the area of Lookout Creek on I-24 that he believes should be started and finished in the next 18 months or so.

"There's also a piece on the other side of Lookout Mountain, from Browns Ferry Road down to the Georgia line, that they're going to be starting on at the end of next year at the end of 2022 getting the design and doing the right-of-way buying they need to do," Gardenhire said of future plans.

"Once they get those pieces complete, then they'll start from the Georgia line to Brown's Ferry Road, where they've already got surveying done for that. But going around Lookout Mountain and going through Missionary Ridge is going to be the last piece that they do," he said.

Widening those two sections "will be extremely expensive, and it's going to be an engineering miracle to build it," he said.

For now, motorists should be aware Chestnut Street is closed while the contractor builds a new bridge and retaining walls for the I-24 east ramp to Broad Street, according to Bradley. Following that work, the road will remain closed until the demolition of the old ramp bridge is complete, she said.

Detour routes are posted, and drivers may see intermittent lane closures on Broad Street between West 26th Street and West 20th Street over the coming months as the contractor works to install storm drainage structures for the new frontage road, Bradley said.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.