State awards $3 million contract for ‘Gateway to Chattanooga’ highway landscaping project

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ The Fourth St. interchange with Highway 27 on Wednesday, March 27, 2024.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ The Fourth St. interchange with Highway 27 on Wednesday, March 27, 2024.

The state’s transportation agency has awarded a $3 million contract for the landscaping of U.S. Highway 27 between Sixth Street and Riverfront Parkway, a project that was once much larger before the pandemic drove up costs.

The contract was awarded to Knoxville-based Stansell Electric Co. to plant trees, shrubs, prairie grasses, wildflowers and a variety of other ground cover crops as well as the installation of an irrigation system, according to a statement issued by the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

“This landscaping project is the first of its kind, and we’re delighted it’s been let to construction,” the agency’s statement said. “Our partnership with the Tennessee Interstate Conservancy has played a critical role in the advancement of this project. Upon completion, the project will beautify an important corridor in the Chattanooga area and enhance the natural scenic beauty of the Tennessee landscape.”

(READ MORE: Phase 2 of Chattanooga's I-75/I-24 'split' project at 25% complete as work continues amid traffic snarls)

The work, first dubbed the “Gateway to Chattanooga,” was originally planned as a much larger project before the pandemic drove landscaping costs sky-high and caused officials to delay. J. Neil Thomas, who spearheaded the project eight years ago, said it would become a beautification model for the state to use elsewhere on its interstates.

“Finally,” Thomas said Tuesday in a phone interview. “I am ecstatic because Chattanooga’s now the pilot of the state.”

Chattanooga’s project will be the model for the entire interstate system in Tennessee, Thomas said.

“I’m really looking forward to this,” he said.

The original comprehensive plan for the Gateway — which had a prepandemic cost estimate of around $2.2 million — included more than 1,000 trees of various species, 4 to 5 acres of wildflower species, thousands of daylilies and iris — a state flower — on the 21 acres surrounding the interchanges at Fourth Street and M.L. King Boulevard. Plantings were envisioned to transform the open spaces into lush plantings with species that provide visual interest year-round.

The first bids in June 2021 were far higher than appropriations and were rejected, so the project was split, breaking out the Fourth Street interchange, or one-third of the entire project, to bring the work back nearer original cost estimates. When the project drew only one bid in May 2022, again it was too high and was rejected.

(READ MORE: TDOT opens $83 million apparent low bid for Hamilton Place-I-75 interchange project)

Officials said then the project wasn’t dead, but it remained in limbo until the contract award announced this week.

Neil said the contracted work will have the same project footprint as the plan that drew the $5 million bid rejected in 2022 and will probably begin with preparations for irrigation and delivery of topsoil.

Construction is scheduled to begin this year and has an estimated completion date of December 2025, according to transportation agency spokesperson Rae Anne Bradley.

“Once construction begins, every effort will be made to minimize impacts to drivers,” Bradley said in the statement.

Contact Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569.

  photo  Tennessee Department of Transportation / U.S. Highway 27 Landscaping Project map.

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