Chattanooga's transportation department looks to federal government for $20 million in emergency road repairs

Chattanooga's transportation department looks to federal government for $20 million in emergency road repairs

May 24th, 2019 by Sarah Grace Taylor in Local Regional News

A portion of Lake Resort Drive is reduced to a single lane following damage to the roadway, seen here on Thursday, May 23, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

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Chattanooga's transportation department has passed preliminary disaster assessments for about $20 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency and Federal Highway Administration funds for four major slope failure repairs on Lake Resort Drive, Elder Mountain Road, Hamill Road and Wilcox Boulevard.

Mayor Andy Berke's proposed 2020 budget includes funding for each project, suddenly urgent after more than 10 inches of rain over 10 days in late February. Though the money has not been confirmed by the federal government, CDOT officials believe the projects all passed preliminary federal assessments and should receive the emergency funding.

"It's been moving, but we really don't know when to expect the funds," CDOT Transportation Engineer Mark Heinzer said, adding this is the only such emergency funding request the city has made in recent history. "We're working on this as a maintenance issue, which can be annoying, but now it's become a safety issue so things are happening a lot faster."

It is unclear where the money will come from for each project, but CDOT officials expect the Hamill Road, Wilcox Boulevard and Lake Resort Drive projects to receive funding from the highway administration, while Elder Mountain Road funds likely will come from FEMA due to traffic volumes.

FEMA projects usually receive 75% funding from the federal government, 12.5% from the state and 12.5% from the city, while the highway administration funds 80% of its projects and the city covers the remaining 20%.

In both funding models, the city will cover the expenses on the front end with reimbursements to come after the project is completed and approved by the federal agencies. Even with the $23 million for the projects included in the proposed budget, the reimbursement and final figures are subject to change.

"We don't know how quickly we'll finish the projects or get the funds back, but we do plan to start all of the projects as soon as we get approved," CDOT Senior Engineer Katie Snyder said. "These are really high-level estimates and we tried to guess high, but they could definitely change."

The largest sum, $9 million, will go to slope repairs on Lake Resort Drive. A stretch of Lake Resort has been down to a single lane of traffic since Feb. 24 when about 800 feet of the eastbound lane dropped by nearly 8 inches due to slope failure.

According to Snyder, the project is the top safety priority for CDOT and is already 30% through the design process with 100% expected by July.

"We're still working on the final design, but it's going to take a global approach to fully repair," Snyder said, explaining that the design will aim to prevent future failure at the volatile site. "We don't know if it's going to move another six or eight inches in a week or if it's going to stay put for a week it's just our geology."

Snyder said the city is working to design a construction schedule that avoids or minimizes complete closures of Lake Resort Drive and that they will avoid having it and Hamill Road closed simultaneously for traffic, as they serve as alternatives to each other.

"At this point we don't know exactly what it will look like," Snyder said. "It is a top priority for us to try and maintain traffic through there as best we can. But paramount to that is public safety."

Snyder said the transportation department will continue to monitor the area for shifts, as they have been weekly since February, and will make the most prudent decision on road closures closer to time.

The next largest project is the repair of several small slope failures on Elder Mountain Road, estimated to cost about $7 million.

"When it failed, it took both lanes unlike Lake Resort, so no one is driving on about 1,000 feet of that road right now," Snyder said, adding that crews had built an alternating lane over an uphill ditch to accommodate the road's light traffic. "We're having to monitor that one extremely carefully because workers have reported hearing guardrail pops, an obvious sign of further slope failure."

The next most expensive repair will be to Hamill Road, which has experienced cracking since the February rains, suggesting potential for lane failure, despite being repaved in late 2018.

Repairs to Hamill are estimated to cost around $5 million, and they likely will begin after the Lake Resort project is complete.

The fourth and mildest repair project is the Wilcox Boulevard tunnel, which Snyder called a more "classic" slope failure that will cost only about $2 million to repair and does not require a design process.

The tunnel's only specific hurdle will be getting approval from state and federal historic registries to do maintenance on the protected tunnel.

"The work isn't on the structure itself, which is considered historic, so it should not be an issue," Snyder said. "It's just pretty standard slope maintenance to keep the road safe after the rain."

CDOT officials hope to have all of the projects in construction within the fiscal year.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.