If it seems Chattanooga has a lot of interstate construction work going on, officials say that's because it does — and more is coming down the road.
More than $1 billion has gone into interstate and other road work in Hamilton County since 2011, including the massive ongoing spending at the I-75/I-24 split and on U.S. 27/I-24, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
And TDOT is readying a major widening of I-24 from the Georgia line, around Lookout Mountain and to U.S. 27 near downtown, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said. An early rough estimate had put that project at $171.5 million.
"They're surveying today," Gardenhire said last week about engineering work on that piece of interstate that frequently sees traffic tie-ups.
He added there are 40 bridges that will need replacement along I-24 in the work that will add one lane in each direction.
Meanwhile, as work continues at I-75/I-24 and at U.S 27/I-24, those interchanges were cited this year as among the 100 worst traffic bottlenecks in America, according to a national trucking institute.
The I-75/I-24 interchange ranked 32nd worst in the country, while U.S. 27/I-24 is 51st, the 2020 list from the American Transportation Research Institute shows.
"I don't think there's anybody who has a friend who has driven though Chattanooga who hasn't heard the comment 'You have pretty bad traffic.'"
Brad Kemp, president of the Chattanooga-based transportation company Tranco Global, said the two bottlenecks are "back-to-back."
"I don't think there's anybody who has a friend who has driven through Chattanooga who hasn't heard the comment, 'You have pretty bad traffic,'" he said.
But Kemp said Chattanooga isn't alone, and he cited nearby Atlanta. The Georgia capital has three bottlenecks in the institute's top 10 worst list. Fort Lee, New Jersey, just outside New York City, is No. 1.
The current work at U.S. 27/I-24 in Chattanooga is slated to finish up by year's end, said TDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn.
Still, TDOT announced last week that work is starting on a three-year project to upgrade the I-24 intersection just south of U.S. 27 to ease traffic into the Southside and South Broad district at Market and Broad streets.
TDOT awarded a contract for the work to Wright Brothers Construction Co. for a nearly $32 million project.
Flynn said most of that work shouldn't affect interstate traffic as the project calls for adding a deceleration lane to just the east side of I-24. That will make access easier to Broad and Market streets, where those intersections will be redone as part of the work, she said.
"It won't be any more congested than it normally is," Flynn said.
Gardenhire said that when drivers from Nashville come around Lookout Mountain on I-24, they'll have a separate lane that will take their vehicles away from the existing U.S. 27/I-24 interchange.
"It will eliminate a lot of congestion coming into downtown," he said, adding it's expected to boost the Southside and South Broad Street areas by making it easier for companies to access them.
WORK AT THE SPLIT
Concerning the I-75/I-24 split, Flynn said TDOT is readying for a big traffic shift later this month that will signal a move to the next phase of work.
"It will take the entire weekend to do the traffic shift," she said, and the whole project is scheduled to be completed in summer 2021.
Work also is underway close by to replace the Germantown Road bridge over I-24, Flynn said.
In addition, still another phase of the I-75/I-24 work will involve adding lanes on I-24 near the split after the existing project is done. That phase will include improving and widening I-24 from the Spring Creek Road bridge to the Germantown Road area. Some added work along I-75 will be done to near the East Brainerd Road interchange, Flynn said.
"We've got a lot going on I-24, that's for sure," she said. "We've got a lot going on with the interstate."
Gardenhire said he's hopeful the work at the two interchanges cited by the transportation research institute will get those off the group's worst bottlenecks list. But, he said estimates show that 70% of all U.S. traffic comes through Tennessee.
"We widen roads and it may invite more traffic," the state senator said.
Kemp said Tranco takes steps in Chattanooga to help its drivers and clients navigate congestion.
Among the work underway:
* $143.2 million project through downtown to widen and straighten the path of U.S. 27 (I-24) and improve on- and off-ramps between the river and Interstate 24.
* $132.6 million to enhance the Interstate 75/I-24 interchange
* $39.9 million bridge replacement at Belvoir Avenue and Germantown Road over I-24
* $32 million to upgrade I-24 interchange at Broad and Market streets
"We have several warehouses throughout the city," he said. "We have customers specifically request a warehouse on the east side of town so they avoid being caught up in congestion."
Kemp said Tranco truck cabins have equipment to communicate with headquarters regarding traffic patterns and weather.
"We're able to give drivers alerts if there had been an accident at I-24 and I-75," he said. "We make them aware of the nature of that accident and change scheduling accordingly."
Tranco Vice President Steve Chisum said its trucks try to avoid rush hours in the morning and evening. But he said that "one thing goes wrong on the interstate system and that causes all kinds of delays."
I-24 TO GEORGIA LINE
Flynn said that because the I-24 project from the Georgia line is more than 7 miles, TDOT will break up the job into two parts. The first section will go from the state line to Browns Ferry Road, or about 4.7 miles. The second section will run from Browns Ferry Road to U.S. 27, or 2.6 miles. Flynn said there's no schedule for construction yet.
"To get that whole corridor, that's a big project," she said.
Another project on the books is widening I-75 from Ooltewah to Exit 20 in Bradley County, Flynn said. She said that 8.5-mile project could be broken into parts as well. The project will add a lane in each direction and include an additional truck-climbing lane going both ways as I-75 goes over White Oak Mountain.
Additionally, an I-75 interchange modification at Hamilton Place mall has been pegged at costing $40 million.
Flynn said she understands people may have concerns with the scope of work underway on the interstates and in the pipeline.
"With the IMPROVE Act, we were able to get projects underway," she said, citing the 2017 state legislation that increased fuel taxes. "It will be a much-improved interstate when we get all these projects done."
Gardenhire, too, cited the passage of the IMPROVE Act. Tennessee's gas tax grew from 21.4 cents per gallon to 27.4 cents, while diesel fuel tax went from 18.4 cents to 28.4 cents per gallon.
He cited former Gov. Bill Haslam's efforts to convince the Legislature to pass the bill, which the Hamilton County delegation supported.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.