Commuters on Interstate 75 headed to and from Chattanooga can collectively cheer — quietly, since it's in the earliest planning stages — the fact the state has included the Interstate 24 "split" in its transportation improvement plan, starting in 2018.
A contract to design and reconstruct the interchange from the blueprint stage to the last lane stripe will be awarded in fiscal year 2018, a Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman said. Gov. Bill Haslam and TDOT Commissioner John Schroer announced the project funding Tuesday.
The interchange, just north of the Tennessee-Georgia line in Chattanooga, is part of TDOT's $2.6 billion, three-year transportation improvement plan. The junction sees an estimated 124,000 vehicles passing through daily in an area notorious for its traffic jams.
The long-awaited project — estimated to cost $65 million, according to the IMPROVE Act project list — is part of infrastructure investments for 101 individual projects in 40 Tennessee counties, including several others in Hamilton County and surrounding counties.
TDOT spokeswoman B.J. Doughty said the project is expected to use "flyover ramp" designs — much like those in Memphis' I-40/I-240 interchange — to allow traffic traveling in different directions to pass at varying levels. The "flyover ramp" at the northbound I-75 exit for Highway 153 is a small example of the design.
Doughty said the state is taking a "design-build" approach to the project to help streamline it.
"Design-build" refers to a project method that combines all or some portions of the design and construction phases of a project — including the design, right-of-way acquisition, regulatory permit approvals, utility relocation and construction — into a single contract.
"It's a faster way to deliver projects," Doughty said. "It can definitely speed up the time, and that project is in the first year of the program, so we're kind of getting some of those ducks in a row right now."
Doughty said there won't be a lot of project details available until later.
"We're talking about going to contract in fiscal year '18," she said. "Late summer may be when TDOT has more of a timeline nailed down. This will be a big job."
Officials point to the recent legislative passage of Haslam's IMPROVE Act as the trigger for moving ahead.
Passage of the IMPROVE Act and some one-time funding increases combined to move several key projects forward, including others in Blount, Knox, Davidson and Shelby counties. The three-year program, more robust than those in previous years, is projected to raise an additional $150 million to meet the state's infrastructure needs in fiscal year 2018, officials said.
The $150 million increase, combined with a $120 million repayment to the highway fund, provides the necessary funds to move several backlogged and new transportation projects forward in the program's first year, officials said.
"The IMPROVE Act is a comprehensive, conservative and responsible plan that directly addresses how we fund our roads and bridges for the first time in 30 years," Haslam said. "Many of these projects would not have moved forward for several years without this. With this additional funding, TDOT can keep our transportation network safe, reliable and debt-free for the next generation of Tennesseans while spurring economic growth in communities across the state."
Officials said the IMPROVE Act also identifies 526 locally owned bridges across Tennessee. With the new funding in place, TDOT has included a new category for the High Priority Bridge program in its overall budget.
A schedule to complete those bridges should be complete in the near future, officials said.
In addition to the 2018 budgeted program, partial plans for 2019 and 2020 are included, along with funding for 15 transportation programs including rockfall mitigation, spot safety improvement, and the statewide HELP program.
The program also provides funding for transit agencies in all 95 counties, as well as Metropolitan and Rural Planning Organizations, officials said.
This story was updated May 9 at 11:35 p.m. with more information.