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AT&T Field is seen through the clearing of trees and brush from the base of Cameron Hill high above U.S. Highway 27, in downtown Chattanooga.

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Drivers say Highway 27 project worth the driver do-si-do

Like mushrooms after a rain, the orange barrels from Chattanooga's U.S. Highway 27 project that vanished from the north side of the Olgiati Bridge have sprung up again in the last month, this time on the south end of the bridge.

Motorists barely got to catch their collective breaths from the March opening of the north end of the project before the ever-changing, lane-shifting madness started downtown with the next phase.

Downtown Chattanooga dentist Dr. Frank "Bubba" Trundle Jr. drives through the snarl to his Carter Street office every day, but he's looking past the inevitable backups to the future.

"The construction of the freeway will be worth it if they only improved two areas — on the south side at M.L. King, the entrance and exit ramps are in the same lane, [and] on the north side, the exit lane for Fourth Street is in the same lane as entry from M.L. King," Trundle said of the original combination entrance-exit ramps. That combination often required drivers to do a frantic do-si-do to switch places on the ramp.

"Both are dangerous in morning and evening commute," Trundle said. "Flow in and out of town will be better when [the project is] finished."

Other drivers appreciate the ongoing work.

For 28-year-old North Shore resident Chas Webb, a civil engineer for Hamilton County, the project adds about 10 minutes to his commute but adds a little hope for his travels in the future.

"I don't mind that one bit, even if it will be for a few years," Webb said.

"The first phase of Highway 27 was great, but it only created a bottleneck closer to downtown," he said. "I think [the Tennessee Department of Transportation] has done a great job of having their contractors work during non-peak hours and closing lanes at night. I know that adds to the length and cost of the project, but it's certainly worth it in my opinion."

Kim Frederick, 26, commutes every day around 7:40 a.m. from Signal Mountain to Kenco Management on Riverside Drive, taking the Olgiati Bridge to the Fourth Street exit into downtown.

The drive already is better than it was before the project started, Frederick said.

"As I get off at Fourth Street, I get over in the far right-hand lane," she said. "The other lanes are usually quite blocked up, but with the extension of the [exit] lane it's been so much better."

At $126.3 million, the 2.3-mile-long project from around Main Street to the south end of the Olgiati Bridge is the most expensive project in TDOT history. Jackson, Tenn.-based Dement Construction LLC is the contractor. Construction is expected to last until 2019.

The interchange between U.S. 27 and Interstate 24 will remain much the same, but the highway will be widened within the confines of the project footprint, and interchanges at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Fourth Street will see major changes and new frontage roads, TDOT officials say.

"I think people know that the project is much-needed," TDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn said. "And once we get through with construction, the road will be much wider and safer."

Safety measures taken during construction will include installation of new striping and, because some of the tall street lights through the construction zone have been moved or disconnected, raised reflective markers will be installed on the roadway to improve lane visibility, Flynn said.

There have been no complaints to TDOT on the project itself but state officials did get a complaint about a problematic temporary ramp on the southbound side at the MLK exit early in the project. Officials responded by returning that exit to its original configuration until later, Flynn said.

On the northbound side, the temporary ramp between MLK and Fourth Street will keep, for now, the same style exit and entrance that the old ramps had, Flynn said.

Those double-duty ramps can be confusing, officials said.

HOW TO DO IT

Tennessee Highway Patrol Lt. John Harmon said there are rules for combination entrance-exit ramps in the construction zone and elsewhere in Chattanooga, like the interchanges at the Moore Road exits on both sides of Interstate 24 or the interchanges at Highway 153 and Hixson Pike.

By state law, the driver who is on the ramp must yield the right of way to traffic on the main road they are entering, Harmon said.

"If I'm on Highway 27, I have the right of way," Harmon said. "Until I get completely off that road, the person merging onto the road has to yield to me.

"Technically a ramp — off ramp or on ramp — is merging onto another thoroughfare," he said.

But not all drivers do it that way — and that's OK if they're being careful, the trooper said.

"If you're driving down the right lane on the interstate, you can, as a courtesy, give room for another driver to enter the traffic lane," Harmon said. The driver should check rearview mirrors and shift one lane to the left to allow another driver onto the main thoroughfare.

If the highway driver wants to take the off ramp, that driver can also slow down to get behind the merging driver, as long as both drivers feel they understand the other's intentions, Harmon said.

When in doubt, the driver on the ramp should yield to the traffic on the main road.

Patience and a "share the road" philosophy doesn't hurt, Harmon said.

Harmon said troopers will be highly visible in the construction zone to keep road workers safe and to watch for speeders and reckless drivers.

"It's going to be here for several years, and we want to encourage our local residents not get complacent about the construction zones," Harmon said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.

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Highway 27 project
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