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Cars drive through the Wilcox Tunnel recently.

Members of the North Brainerd Community Council question whether the city, county and federal governments are discriminating against Wilcox Boulevard-area residents by taking so long to repair the Wilcox Tunnel, a major thoroughfare that connects Wilcox Boulevard to Shallowford Road.

The council hosted a community forum Nov. 13 attended by more than 40 residents who called for local government and federal agencies to conduct a public hearing documenting fears and facts concerning the 83-year-old tunnel. The council, on behalf of those residents, also asked that information from the hearing be used to investigate the possibility of the local government and federal agencies practicing environmental injustice.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies."

In a letter dated Nov. 17 that North Brainerd Community Council representatives said they sent to city, county and state officials, the information from the hearing should be used to help "determine that under 'environmental justice' if there has been any unfair and unequal treatment, and outright neglect of this area; [and] to review if there has been any apparent violations under Title VI of the Civil Rights ACT of 1964."

City Transportation Administrator Blythe Bailey said this month that he had not seen the letter but that the tunnel is extremely important to him and he's been working hard to repair it since accepting his job in April 2013.

"The neighborhoods in the vicinity of the tunnel deserve a tremendous amount of attention and street projects should encourage and facilitate safety for everybody, regardless of income level," Bailey said.

City Councilman Russel Gilbert, who represents District 5 which includes the Wilcox area, said he doesn't see the point of a public hearing since he already hosted a Fifth District Summit last summer where he explained the city's plans for renovating the tunnel.

Early estimates are that the city will spend $1 million to $2 million to stop water leaks and improve lighting and the interior structure of the tunnel this spring, said Bailey.

A better cost estimate will be available after construction documents are finished and the project goes to bid, Bailey said.

The tunnel will be closed from 8:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. today through Wednesday while the city runs tests in preparation for those renovations.

"We feel like this is a significant improvement to the tunnel that is long overdue," Bailey said.

In October 2013, Mayor Andy Berke and other city officials canvassed the community asking residents who lived near the tunnel their most urgent concerns about the tunnel. The city used information from residents to prioritize the upcoming renovations.

Delayed Wilcox Tunnel repairs are the result of the associated high costs, not environmental injustice, said Gilbert.

"I've not seen a lot of projects like this that cost that much money," Gilbert said.

In April of this year, the city applied for a TIGER grant, a program of the United States Department of Transportation, to fund repairs to the tunnel, but the grant was not awarded for the project. It would have yielded $52 million for restoration: $27 million with a required local match of $25 million.

It was the third time the city applied for the competitive grant for the project and got overlooked.

People have complained about the safety of the tunnel for more than five decades, the North Brainerd Community Council's letter states.

The tunnel is deemed unsafe for pedestrians and safety vehicles. It constantly leaks water that freezes in winter and the tunnel has bad air quality, said Robert Schreane, Community Council chairman.

Lots of tests and promises have been made, yet "the tunnel has only received piecemeal and sporadic maintenance," according to the letter.

The alarms expressed by the community have been ignored, the letter states. "Many question if failures are because of the fact that a majority of the residents in close proximity of the area, or are dependent on the tunnel for daily use, are minority and poor in stature," it goes on to say.

The North Brainerd Community Council also sent a copy of the letter to state Rep. JoAnne Favors. In response to residents' call for a public hearing, Favors said the state has no authority over the tunnel but that the community council could call a public hearing itself and she would attend if they did.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman atyputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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