Note: This story was updated on Dec. 5 to correct the dollar amount of the contract.
Work on the long-awaited -- or dreaded -- second phase of the Interstate-24/Interstate 75 "split" project is set to begin in late spring 2023 now that the Tennessee Department of Transportation has awarded a $162 million contract for the job.
Charleston, Tennessee-based Wright Brothers Construction Co. was the low bidder Monday with a $162 million price tag for improvements on 4.8 miles of interstate between the split and the Germantown Road interchange on I-24 and on I-75 between the split and the East Brainerd Road interchange, according to TDOT bid documents and plans.
C.W. Matthews, the contractor on the first phase, submitted the next lowest bid of $204 million, followed by proposals from two other contractors with bids of $221 million and $226 million, respectively, documents show.
"Completion is scheduled for late 2025," TDOT spokeswoman Rae-Anne Bradley said Wednesday in an email.
Over the next several months, the contractor for the project will finish up the design and secure any necessary permits, she said. Construction is scheduled to begin in late spring of 2023.
The tentative plan, based on initial talks with the contractor, is to begin preliminary bridge work on I-24 first, but the majority of the work on I-24 and I-75 will take place simultaneously, Bradley said.
The new work will tie into the recently completed $133.5 million first phase of the I-75/I-24 interchange project intended to ease traffic flow once all the added lanes are finished, according to TDOT. The first phase included a new bridge over I-24 at Spring Creek Road and two separate, but complementary, bridge projects were completed in 2021 at I-24 over Germantown Road and on Belvoir Avenue over I-24 in separate contracts.
Bradley said the reason for the separation of projects is that TDOT is a pay-as-you-go road builder and the overall project was too big to fund, so it was broken into manageable pieces.
SECOND PHASE BIDDERS
Wright Brothers Construction Co.: $161 million.
C.W. Matthews Contracting Co.: $204 million.
Superior Construction Co. Southeast: $221 million.
Archer Western Construction: $226 million.
Source: Tennessee Department of Transportation
The second phase is intended to address traffic backups that sometimes extend for miles in all directions and still remain a vexing problem for motorists even after the first phase of the project.
I-75 and I-24 beyond the project area still eventually return to no more than three lanes heading north, south and west, though widening in those directions is part of the state's long-term plans, Bradley said.
Cleveland-to-Chattanooga daily commuter John Thomas decried the first phase of improvements -- which he said made no real improvement for drivers headed to I-24 west -- with a hopeful eye on the next.
"It's got to be an improvement," Thomas, 52, said Wednesday in a phone interview. "What they did, it's no different than it was before."
Thomas said he hopes the new work allows traffic to merge more gradually heading west from the split, and he also hopes some of the work on the I-24 to I-75 ramps removes some of the merges heading north. Currently traffic going from I-24 to I-75 north has to immediately begin merging left at least three times depending on which on-ramp the driver takes, he said.
"I think I'll be retired by the time it's fixed," Thomas said.
The I-24 portion of phase II will extend eastward from Spring Creek Road to Germantown Road. All lanes in both directions on I-24 between those two points will be reconstructed, with newly designed on- and off-ramps installed for South Moore Road. One new lane in each direction will be added between Germantown and South Moore roads, and two lanes will be added in both directions between South Moore and Spring Creek roads, plans show. Noise walls, like the one near East Gate Town Center adjacent to the I-24 off-ramp, will be erected along the project borders going west.
The new South Moore Road and McBrien Road bridges will also get new lighting, TDOT said.
On I-75, both sides will be widened by one lane to match the just-completed, existing alignment inside the interchange area from just south of the CSX railroad bridge to the East Brainerd Road exit, and the railroad bridge will be replaced entirely on both sides of the interstate, plans show.
Throughout the second phase, a 51-inch median barrier will replace the existing median barrier within the project area, all existing concrete will be rehabilitated, all guardrails replaced and new lighting and overhead roadside signs will be installed throughout.
Over the past half-century, state and local officials on several occasions sought a fix for ongoing traffic problems at the interchange and its arteries, according to Chattanooga Times Free Press archives.
The design of I-24 where it passed through the East Ridge and Brainerd areas drew fire in the mid-1960s when community leaders marched on City Hall to protest plans that excluded on-ramps and off-ramps. The remedy ended in the existing design that includes North Terrace and South Terrace roads. Moore Road was widened to four lanes on the Chattanooga side in 1969 to carry the increased traffic, according to archives.
Tennessee was known as a detour state in the 1920s due to the inability to cross Monteagle Mountain, about 30 miles west of Chattanooga. Although a road was built across the mountain in 1923, it wasn't until I-24 was built over the mountain from 1962 to 1968 that travel became safe for motorists, according to TDOT historical accounts.
As a result of interchange work that began in May 2019, traffic flow through the split has been improved for some motorists, but the ramp from the northbound lanes of I-75 to the westbound lanes of I-24 near East Ridge's Exit 1 still narrows from two lanes into one. That bottleneck will continue until additional lanes contained in phase II of the split project are completed, according to TDOT.
To drivers heading west on I-24 under the new Spring Creek Road bridges, the problem is immediately obvious: There's nowhere for additional lanes to go. That's where the second phase will extend the widening project toward the "ridge cut" through Missionary Ridge and points west.
According to the American Transportation Research Institute, the I-75/I-24 split is the 10th worst trucking bottleneck in the U.S. for 2022, down from No. 7 in 2021. Also notable is Chattanooga's I-24/U.S. Highway 27 interchange, which claims the 29th spot on the institute's Top 100 list for 2022.
TOP TRUCK BOTTLENECKS
1. Fort Lee, N.J.: I-95 / S.R. 4.
2. Cincinnati: I-71 at I-75.
3. Houston: I-45 at I-69/US 59.
4. Atlanta: I-285 at I-85 (north).
5. Atlanta: I-20 at I-285 (west).
6. Chicago: I-290 at I-90/I-94.
7. Los Angeles: SR 60 at SR 57.
8. Dallas: I-45 at I-30.
9. San Bernardino, Calif.: I-10 at I-15.
10. Chattanooga, Tennessee: I-75 at I-24.
Source: American Transportation Research Institute 2022 list of top 100 truck bottlenecks