Opinion: Easing Ooltewah traffic snarls necessary for future Hamilton County growth and development

Staff File Photo / Traffic is diverted from Interstate 75 in both directions at the Ooltewah exit due to accidents on the icy overpass on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016.

Hamilton County Commissioner Steve Highlander knows he can't snap his fingers and solve the traffic problems around the Ooltewah exit on Interstate 75, but he wanted to be sure county legislative delegation members kept the snarl on their minds as they headed to Nashville for this year's legislative session.

So when Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp asked members of the commission present at last week's legislative breakfast if they had anything they wanted to share, the District 9 commission quickly hopped up.

Highlander, who represents most of the northern end of the county east of the Tennessee River and west of Interstate 75, mentioned to legislators a potential Exit 13 on I-75 and a southbound entrance ramp onto I-75 from Hunter Road.

Neither are on lists of projects planned for the short run or long run, but he feels the need is there for relief from the traffic that congests daily at the Ooltewah exit coming from growing developments along Hunter, Snowhill and Mountain View roads.

Those ideas, Highlander told this page Thursday, are my "layman's ideas." But if he could talk to the federal highway department, he would tell them he would be happy with "whatever you think is best to give us some traffic relief."

The Ooltewah exit, the potential location for an Exit 13 and the intersections where the roads converge upon the Ooltewah exit aren't even in his district. They're within District 10 Commissioner Jeff Eversole's district. But many of the subdivisions that feed into the roads that converge on the exit are in his district. And the homeowners in those subdivisions have said they need relief.

One woman coming from the northern end of Mountain View Road, Highlander said, reported during a recent public meeting that it has taken her up to 80 minutes during rush hour to get on the interstate.

With nearly 1,300 students arriving at Ooltewah High School -- at the corner of Snowhill and Mountain View roads -- at around the same time and 750 entering Hunter Middle School down Hunter Road, it is "a horrible traffic quagmire," he said.

A potential Exit 13 likely would be located near the point where Ooltewah-Georgetown Road crosses over the interstate, Highlander said.

He said the late District 29 state Rep. Mike Carter had discussed it and that the state had done some traffic surveys about the need but nothing beyond that.

However, according to newspaper archives, more than 15 years ago a study by Tennessee Department of Transportation engineers envisioned a road that ran west from an Interstate 75 interchange at Ooltewah-Georgetown Road and crossed Highway 58 and the Tennessee River near the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant before it connected with Highway 27.

Articles in 2006 and 2007 also had then-Hamilton County Commissioner Bill Hullander mentioning such an interchange, but officials said no formal request had been made to start such a project.

"We've got a Bonnaroo five days a week right here," he said, referencing the I-24 traffic that used to back up entering the music festival near Manchester, Tenn.

At the same time, then-Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey told the Chattanooga Rotary Club the then-planned new Ooltewah interchange also would include an entrance ramp onto I-75 south from Hunter Road. He said he had requested such an entrance ramp during the administration of Don Sundquist some 10 years earlier but was told no money was available and that "half interchanges" were not preferred.

For whatever reason, that entrance ramp never was built, but Highlander said at one point a temporary entrance there was used.

"Boy, it really relieved traffic," he said.

Highlander said the end is not in sight for how bad the traffic problems could get.

"They're building more and more subdivisions," he said. "It seems like we're always playing catch-up."

Highlander did say a widening of Snowhill Road to three lanes from Amos Road (behind Ooltewah High School) to Shirley Bridge Road was on a long-range list of county road projects and that the current price of that project was $30 million.

At the legislative breakfast, he also boosted the improvement of Bonny Oaks Drive, which is not in his district, though near it, and which Commissioner Greg Beck, who did not attend the breakfast, has been pushing since his previous terms on the panel.

Highlander said he and Eversole have been working together on plans and their districts -- the fastest growing in the county -- are in need of updated zoning for housing, industry and infrastructure. Schools for such an expanding area are important, too, he said.

With a new survey from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations pegging state transportation needs at $34.7 billion, he knows the solution to the Exit 11 traffic snarl is not around the corner.

"It's a challenge" Highlander said. "I just want to keep it in the foreground."

From newspaper archives alone, we know the need for traffic help -- even with a reconfigured Ooltewah exit, now 15 years old -- is at least 25 years old. It doesn't seem to have inhibited growth in the area yet, but without alleviation we figure that day is just around the corner.