The orange traffic barrels on U.S. Highway 27 soon will be removed and all the roadway's new lanes will welcome motorists, as the most expansive interstate renovation project in Chattanooga since the highway system was built in the 1960s nears completion.
This $105.6 million reconstruction project also is the most expensive the Tennessee Department of Transportation has undertaken in the southeastern part of the state to date, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn.
The three-year project took four lanes of highway that had long been considered inadequate for the load and turned it into six through lanes -- eight in the more heavily congested areas between Manufacturers Road and U.S. Highway 127.
BY THE NUMBERS
Materials used on the U.S. 27 project:
600,000 cubic yards of excavation (material that was removed from the project)
275,000 tons of large graded rock
57,000 cubic yards of concrete
80,000 tons of hot mix asphalt
14,400 linear feet of retaining walls (the longest of which is over 1,000 feet long)
12.7 miles of steel piling for the retaining walls
8 miles of steel piling for the bridges
Almost 2 miles of concrete drainage pipe
6 large overhead signs that span the roadway
44 roadway lights (20 are 100 feet tall)
The revamp of this 1.62-mile span is expected to be the Chattanooga area's signature transportation improvement of 2015, resulting in improved vehicular flow, better access to the city, and maybe even new development in areas around the North Shore and Signal Mountain Road.
Charles Wood, vice president for economic development at the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, said U.S. 27 is a "critical corridor" for Chattanooga business, specifically logistics.
"Highway 27 is a core connector into downtown, so the development of that helps downtown Chattanooga," Wood said. "And [the road] is our linkage north."
People also want to live in areas that are well-connected, Wood said, and the completion of this project could lead to further development in the vicinity of Signal Mountain Road.
The project began in December 2011.
At the peak of construction, more than 100 workers would be on site during the day, and 10 to 20 workers at night, Flynn said.
Enough material was excavated from the site to fill more than 180 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The amount of hot mix asphalt laid weighed more than 266 empty Boeing 747 aircraft, and 34 different subcontractors were used by Wright Brothers Construction, the project's primary contractor.
By the time the heavy construction was done, workers had put up 33 retaining walls, built six bridges and not only widened but realigned the road itself.
High-mast lighting was installed for better visibility, along with new traffic cameras, said Tony Newman, construction, engineering and inspection manager for Volkert Inc., the company that is overseeing the project for TDOT.
The project is in its final stage, but several items need to be finalized before the new lanes are ready for use.
"While the lanes all appear complete, they are not yet ready for unimpeded traffic," Newman said. "Due to temperature restrictions, final paving and pavement markings of the streets may have to be postponed until warmer temperatures are realized."
The project was originally set to be finished in October 2013, but an unforeseen setback occurred when new luxury town homes were built atop a hill adjacent to the project.
TDOT grew concerned over the stability of the hill and decided to construct an unplanned retaining wall, said Ken Flynn, Region 2 director of operations for TDOT.
"We were concerned about the slope in the area, so to ensure the stability of the hillside we went through the channels and added an unplanned retaining wall to the project," he said.
Still, for a project of this magnitude, work has gone relatively smoothly, Newman said.
It didn't always seem that way to motorists, who endured numerous lane closures and traffic backups.
Most drivers of the thoroughfare agree that traffic was the worst between January and March of 2014.
That's when Signal Mountain traffic and Dayton Boulevard traffic temporarily shared a signalized ramp, leading to snarls that at peak times stretched the length of the ramp and onto the highway and doubled commute times for thousands of motorists.
The backup was inevitable, Newman said, but the contractor worked quickly and modified the plan in order to open the permanent two-lane free-flow ramp from U.S. 27 North to Signal Mountain Road on March 11, weeks ahead of schedule.
In 2010, before the project began, 73,000 cars traveled along U.S. 27 daily, according to TDOT records. Since construction began, the average number of vehicles has decreased, with 60,000 on average traveling the road per day in 2013.
But that is expected to change.
"I believe that the numbers will go up once the project is completed because the roadway will no longer be under construction, plus it will be a much wider, well-lit and safer road capable of increased capacity," Jennifer Flynn said.
Originally, TDOT planned for the project to stretch two more years and continue across the Olgiati Bridge toward downtown.
New exit ramps, a roundabout on M.L. King Boulevard and new frontage roads were part of an $80 million plan to extend the construction, but the plans are on hold due to the uncertainty of the Highway Trust Fund, according to Jennifer Flynn.
Chattanooga Traffic Engineer John Van Winkle said the current construction of U.S. 27 was needed, as the road was under a capacity constraint, but he hopes the other phase of the project will move ahead.
The city will see an even larger impact if the construction is able to continue toward downtown, he said.
Meanwhile, many motorists said they felt like the U.S. 27 work would never end, but now that the project is nearing completion, they hope the three years of inconvenience will prove worthwhile.
Alex Golden, who commutes through the construction each day to get to and from work on Signal Mountain Road, said, "Let's hope once it [the construction] is done it will help with traffic."
"It is so backed up," she said. "A real pain. ... I'm ready for a change."
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6592.