A summer-long intersection closure in St. Elmo could complicate things for motorists traveling in and around Lookout Mountain as early as this week.
Chattanooga's Public Works Department will overhaul the intersection of St. Elmo Avenue and Broad Street, where it transitions into Cummings Highway, to improve storm drainage and prepare for a planned extension of the Tennessee Riverwalk. The project is expected to continue through August.
The intersection upgrade is part of a $17 million multiphase project to overhaul the St. Elmo basin's drainage network, which requires extensive excavation and the installation of 10-foot-wide concrete culverts. The most recent work, which involved the closure of St. Elmo Avenue between Broad Street and West 35th Street, is about to wrap up.
"We're actually solving a problem most residents don't know we have before it becomes a problem," public works administrator Justin Holland said.
The problem is that the existing storm drainage system, which incorporates metal pipes and runs underneath a commercial landfill and buildings, is wearing out after decades of use, Holland said. If the drainage system collapses, St. Elmo and parts of North Georgia could experience significant flooding and property loss. Flooding could even extend to Alton Park and South Chattanooga, he said.
The Chattanooga Department of Transportation has a plan or three for detours and alternate routes during work on the upgrade, though.
Southbound Broad Street traffic will turn right onto West 35th Street and take St. Elmo Avenue to Cummings Highway. Heading east from Cummings Highway, motorists will take West 37th Street and turn onto Tennessee Avenue to reach Broad Street.
To avoid congestion in the St. Elmo area, the transportation department recommends Lookout Mountain traffic bound for downtown Chattanooga take Ochs Highway and follow Tennessee Avenue to West 40th Street, then turn onto Alton Park Boulevard, which turns into northbound Market Street.
From Scenic Highway, the department recommends turning left on Wauhatchie Pike to Cummings Highway. From there, take Browns Ferry Road to Interstate 24 eastbound to reach downtown Chattanooga.
Lookout Valley resident Prentice Hicks, who operates Wauhatchie Glassworks on Kellys Ferry Road, sized up the situation as one big headache.
"What concerns me is that such a crucial piece of the southern route to the west out of Chattanooga is constricted for so long in the busiest traffic time of year," Hicks said in an email.
He said two things complicate the Broad Street closure: planned Tennessee Department of Transportation maintenance on Cummings Highway and traffic crashes on Interstate 24.
When eastbound I-24 traffic bogs down because of an accident, traffic unloads onto Cummings Highway, Hicks said. He urged the city to fast-track the Broad Street project, citing concerns that east-west commutes through South Chattanooga will be "all but impassable" whenever I-24 is blocked.
It will be a problem for ambulances, delivery trucks and his unsuspecting out-of-town clients, Hicks said.
"I can expect a [90-minute] trip to town if I have to go Cummings Highway," Hicks said. "My normal trip time is 10 minutes [by I-24]. Multiply all that times 25,000."
TDOT may be able to ease the impact on traffic congestion while it makes repairs to Cummings Highway's stone wall along the base of Lookout Mountain, spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn said in an email.
While the maintenance will require TDOT to close one lane of traffic, the agency will most likely schedule repair work on weekdays during nonpeak hours, Flynn said. The Cummings Highway maintenance project may start in the next few weeks.
The Broad Street detour plan was conceived more than a year ago in coordination with the city's transportation department, city engineer Bill Payne said.
Holland said the city has "had a tremendous amount of community engagement" in a series of meetings with St. Elmo business owners and Lookout Mountain attractions and city governments.
"It's been a pretty good turnout, from a communications standpoint, of the interested business owners and community leaders," Holland said.
While no one wants to close off Broad Street for the estimated 90 days it will take to complete the work, the city has no real option in the end, Payne said.
If the old drainage lines fail — some have been in place for 40 years and have only a 25-year life expectancy — the city would have to spend millions of dollars pumping stormwater overflow and still build a new drainage network for the St. Elmo basin, he said.
Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.