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Work completed so far

* Removed existing electrical (completed mid-September)

* Constructed new electrical infrastructure (completed mid-November)

* Performed preliminary concrete repairs (completed late November)

* Finalized new electrical infrastructure (completed Dec. 11)

The city plans to transition from electrical to the contractor for the liner work. The major liner work begins after Christmas and continues through the end of the project in late February.

Source: City of Chattanooga

Some business owners near the Wilcox Tunnel say their sales have dropped by more than half during the four months it has been closed for repairs, and they wonder if city officials care.

"They're not thinking of businesses or residents in this area," said John Taylor, area businessman and former Chattanooga councilman. "They're not thinking about the pedestrians trying to get through. This simply shows the city is unconcerned for our community."

Taylor and other merchants said they've seen so little work at the tunnel they anticipate that in or before February, the city will ask for an extension because its renovation will be incomplete.

"Every day just ride up here and see what's going on," Taylor said. "It's been days with nothing."

But city officials celebrate the project that is making more than $2 million in renovations to the 83-year-old tunnel, which carried about 15,491 people a day in 2014, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

It's been at least 20 years since a tunnel liner to control water flow was installed in the tunnel, Transportation Administrator Blythe Bailey said in an interview Thursday.

Workers completed new electrical wiring in mid-September, but that wiring work may not be visible to onlookers. Contractors will start sandblasting after Christmas, Bailey said, and the renovated tunnel will include new lighting. It will be safer and better looking, Bailey said.

"We're actually in there making the improvements and the tunnel is going to see significant change," he said.

Councilman Yusuf Hakeem, who hosted public meetings advocating the tunnel renovation, said he receives at least three calls a week from people complaining because the tunnel is closed, with no workers in sight.

"Quite frankly, the community is not pleased with what they see happening," Hakeem said. "It appears to them that nothing is being done."

So far, work has been mostly wiring-related. So when merchants and pedestrians walk in, they see a tunnel with lights at one end but dark at the other. The ceiling still drips water, puddles still form on the street and cracks remain in the tunnel walls.

"It seems like nobody cares," said Logan Salah, general manger of Boost Mobile, while walking through the tunnel Thursday.

Hakeem wants the city to meet with merchants and residents to explain progress on the tunnel.

Photo Gallery

City now unsure if Wilcox Tunnel renovation is on target for February completion

City officials said Thursday the city plans to meet with merchants in January.

Councilman Russell Gilbert, whose district includes the tunnel, said he doesn't want to rush progress.

"I want to make sure it's done correctly," Gilbert said. "I want it done on time and I want to make sure people like what they see."

Since the tunnel closed on Aug. 17, workers have stripped out old electrical wiring and installed new wiring. They completed the wiring on Dec. 11. A new crew will sandblast and line the walls after Christmas, Blythe said.

Taylor believes the Wilcox Tunnel has been low priority for the city because it connects two inner-city communities.

But city officials have said the major difference between Wilcox and other area tunnels is that the Missionary Ridge Tunnels, the Bachman Tubes and Stringer's Ridge Tunnel are all owned and maintained by the state and can access state funds for routine repairs.

The Wilcox Tunnel is the only one the city owns. The city has been turned down repeatedly for federal grants to widen the tunnel or build a second one alongside to improve traffic flow and safety.

Tia Taylor-Clark, owner of Jane of Trades, suggested it would help the merchants if the work went on at night so people still could use the tunnel during the day.

But transportation officials said, much as they understand the hit to business, that wouldn't be safe.

City officials said the tunnel renovation is on schedule. Once the sandblasters get going in preparation to install the liner, there will be so much activity the city plans to fence off the area to make sure pedestrians don't walk into the tunnel while sandblasters are working.

Bailey and other Chattanooga officials vow the tunnel work will be complete in February, as scheduled.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 757-6431.

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