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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Cars drive down U.S. 27 South past downtown on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The path is opening up for a project to turn two of U.S. Highway 27's downtown Chattanooga interchanges into garden-like gateways as the delayed $143.3 million improvement project to improve the 1960s-era traffic artery through the city's heart finally wraps up.

The project has looked done for weeks, if not for the orange barrels and traffic cones that keep popping up for work on some of the last details, generating periodic traffic snarls.

"The project is substantially complete," Tennessee Department of Transportation spokesperson Jennifer Flynn said Tuesday in an email.

"The contractor still has some temperature-sensitive items to finish — final paving on MLK [East M.L. King Boulevard], pavement markings, sawing and sealing concrete, etc. — and some general work to complete — installing remaining permanent signs, project cleanup, addressing punch-list items," she said. "This work may require some temporary lane closures."

(READ MORE: I-75, I-24 'Split' project slated for summer 2021 finish as new design takes shape)

The coming completion means another, separate landscaping project called the "Gateway to Chattanooga" can begin to add beauty to function.

Flynn said the group leading that project has been notified that crews can finally get out some work gloves. Planting could begin in the fall — the best time of year to ensure survival of newly-planted trees — and other plantings could be performed in spring 2022, she said.

"The goal at this time is to let a project late-spring/early-summer so that plantings can take place next fall," she said. "Once the project is let, the contractor will use the summer months to do some preparation work, such as installing irrigation and some of the lighting and getting the soil ready for fall planting."

The project is headed by the nonprofit group Tennessee Interstate Conservancy. The project will transform open spaces in two of the most heavily traveled downtown interchanges — East M.L. King Boulevard and Fourth Street — into lush plantings with species that provide year-round visual interest with the changing seasons, organizers said.

 

'Gateway to Chattanooga'

The conservancy, spearheaded by former Circuit Court Judge Neil Thomas III, has joined forces with TDOT, local governments, businesses and others to make the project a reality. Conservancy officials have waited in the wings with shovels, hoes and rakes in hand for the installation of thousands of trees, wildflowers, ornamental plants and other species to be planted on more than 21 acres of open space in the two interchanges.

Designs for the work are completed "down to the last bush planned, but we missed the planting season this past fall so we've got to slip it to next fall." Thomas said Tuesday. "You can't plant in spring and summer and not risk losing a lot of your plants."

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Another major accomplishment arising from the project, Thomas said, is that Chattanooga will become a model for the rest of the state. "I got the state to agree in their contract with the city that Chattanooga is the pilot project for TDOT's interstate beautification," he said.

TDOT Beautification Office manager Shawn Bible, who said last year that Memphis leaders were already eyeing the project as it was first announced, is ready to see the project take shape.

"I am very pleased that this important improvement project on U.S. 27 in downtown Chattanooga has been completed," Bible said Wednesday. "I look forward to seeing the development of the beautification elements that will make this gateway project even more special."

The reason the beautification office got involved in the Chattanooga project was because of the goal of making U.S. 27's beautification a model for future interstate projects in other Tennessee cities, Bible said last year. The idea "will bring continuity and a cohesive look to the major transportation gateways in that area," she said.

Thomas said the state, city, county and conservancy have agreements to answer ongoing maintenance needs.

TDOT will pay for initial planting while maintenance will be done through the city and the conservancy, which will consist of ongoing mulching, mowing, pruning and trash pickup, Thomas said. He said that work will be done under contract by a third party.

While there are no firm estimates yet on annual maintenance costs, Neil said the expense would be shared 50% by the conservancy, 25% by the city and 25% by the county with "the idea to create a fund that will sustain itself for 10 to 20 years."

But 2020's COVID-19 pandemic dealt a blow to fundraising efforts for maintenance, Neil said. He said fundraising efforts will resume in 2021 as planting time approaches this fall.

BY THE NUMBERS

The Gateway to Chattanooga Project to landscape the open areas once construction is complete on two interchanges at East M.L. King Boulevard and Fourth Street will include:

1,000: Trees, various species

1,300: Daylilies

1,100: Blue iris

4: Acres of more than 100 species of wildflowers

22: Acres of landscaping

Source: Tennessee Interstate Conservancy

Long-awaiting completion

The original construction of the piece of Highway 27 that runs through downtown harks back to the 1950s and 1960s. Over the past half-century, traffic volume has increased significantly. The section's winding design contributed to crashes and daily backups that helped make the Highway 27/Interstate 24 interchange the worst in Tennessee and one of the nation's worst commercial truck bottlenecks, according to the American Transportation Research Institute.

The $143.3 million project through downtown Chattanooga aimed to widen and straighten the roadway's original winding path and to improve on- and off-ramps between the river and I-24.

As the project launched in late-2015 started to wrap up in 2020, an ongoing $3,200-per-day liquidated damages assessment was being tallied against Jackson, Tennessee-based contractor Dement Construction Co. LLC for going beyond the adjusted contract completion date of Jan. 28, 2020, according to TDOT.

The daily assessments stopped on Dec. 20, 2020, when TDOT decided the project was "substantially complete" and stopped tallying liquidated damages at a final total of $1,049,600, according to TDOT.

(READ MORE: Work on $12.6 million 'signature' Ocoee gateway bridge project in Polk County starts this week)

The new wider roadway allows for safer driving conditions and increased capacity at West Main Street, East M.L. King Boulevard and East Fourth Street and the construction of the frontage road adjacent to U.S. 27 South has improved U.S. 27 access to and from the downtown area, Flynn said of engineers' favorite project features.

The 1.62 mile-long project is also "impressive" to engineers, Flynn said, "because all of these improvements took place within mostly existing right-of-way, so TDOT did not have to acquire a lot of property to construct this project."

But the conditions of the work corridor forced the need for structural support, requiring 31 retaining walls to be built, and adding to costs, according to TDOT. The project, which included widening of the Olgiati Bridge over the Tennessee River, completes all the improvements that have been planned on U.S. 27.

The first half of the overall improvement project — coincidentally, also 1.62 miles long — was completed from the north end of the Olgiati Bridge to Signal Mountain Road in 2015. That project had 33 retaining walls.

Adding in the about six-tenths of a mile for the Olgiati Bridge span between the two, and the entire completed project length is almost 4 miles for both phases.

 

Next steps

Thomas said the design for the project was done by Nashville firm Ragan + Smith Associates, a consulting firm with expertise in various areas of architecture and engineering that includes landscape architecture. Company vice president Brett Smith said when plans were introduced last year that the design is intended to be "ornamental and restorative" and considers the ground-level view of the landscaping as well as the view from the air and surrounding buildings.

The plants being used seek to "strike that balance between biodiversity and just loading [a] horticultural shotgun," Smith said.

(READ MORE: GDOT's McCaysville-Copperhill truck loop project delayed, projected costs $12 million lower)

Smith said "cultivar" tree varieties — brand-named, native-based varieties that have been cloned and patented to be marketed commercially — will be used but they aren't invasive, such as Bradford pears that are now appearing in wild settings. And Smith said native wildflowers will be combined with non-native daylilies to make a seamless blend of the best features.

The project will borrow directly from nature, Thomas said.

"What we've done is use Mother Nature's colors as our art," he said.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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