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Staff file photo by Troy Stolt / Traffic on Interstate 24 drives past the Belvoir Avenue Bridge in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

Brace yourself, Chattanooga drivers.

What we're about to tell you might make you cry, curse or cheer depending on how you feel about orange barrels.

Tennessee's Transportation Improvement Program updated plan for fiscal years 2022-2024 contains work on phase 2 of the Interstate 24/Interstate 75 "Split" project. The plan was released April 28.

"[The work] will take place at some point after the current project is completed in late summer 2021," Tennessee Department of Transportation Region 2 spokesperson Jennifer Flynn said. "This phase will include improving and widening the I-24 corridor from the Spring Creek Road bridge to west of Belvoir Avenue and some additional work along I-75 to near the East Brainerd Road interchange."

The three-year transportation program announced by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and TDOT Commissioner Clay Bright contains about $2.6 billion in infrastructure investments for 68 individual project phases in 45 counties statewide.

"Investing in infrastructure is an important part of driving economic opportunity throughout our state," Lee said in a statement on the program. "This funding, particularly for rural Tennessee, will help to keep Tennesseans safe and moving in the right direction."

Construction will begin in fiscal year 2022 on several critical transportation projects across the state, according to officials. Work at Spring Creek Road's bridges over I-24 is now about halfway done. The new Belvoir Bridge, part of a $32.9 million project that includes the I-24 bridges over Germantown Road, was finished at the end of March. The Germantown Road bridges are more than midway to a late August completion date.

(READ MORE: Switch to new, final alignment at I-75/I-24 'Split' interchange completed ahead of schedule)

Region 2 director Joe Deering said TDOT's engineers crafted the basics of the coming work on I-24 but details will be in the contractor's plans when the second phase is awarded.

I-24 FAST FACTS

Tennessee was known as a detour state in the 1920s due to the inability to cross Monteagle Mountain, about 30 miles west of Chattanooga. Although a road was built across the mountain in 1923, it wasn't until Interstate 24 was built over the mountain from 1962 to 1968 that travel became safe for motorists.

Source: Tennessee Department of Transportation

"TDOT major projects engineers say that the number of lanes will be different according to locations," Deering said.

"On I-24 some of the new lanes will be very short, dedicated entrance or exit lanes, but in general there will be one new through lane in each direction that will taper out west of Belvoir Avenue," he said. "On I-75 there will be one new lane in each direction, but again they will either taper out or become entrance or exit lanes at East Brainerd Road."

The bridges over I-24 at Moore and McBrien roads will be replaced and lengthened to accommodate the added travel lanes beneath them, officials said.

I-24's upcoming widening project will be done using the design-build method, officials said.

"Because this will be a design-build project, there aren't any plans right now," Flynn said. "When we do a design-build project, we prepare what they call '30% plans' and whichever design-build contractor is awarded the project finishes out the plans. It is TDOT's position that the design-builder shall design, manage and construct the project."

John Thomas' daily commute is about 35 minutes each way from Cleveland, Tennessee, to work in the 23rd Street area in Chattanooga, a path that takes him through the interchange and onto I-24 and down the curves of the piece nicknamed the "ridge cut" through Missionary Ridge.

It's a commute the 51-year-old Thomas has driven daily for 17 years and the last couple of years he's been navigating the current $132.6 million interchange improvement project at the Tennessee-Georgia state line.

Now there's phase II.

"I was a little surprised by that," Thomas said.

But he said he's also been surprised by how little impact the ongoing Split project has had on traffic, and he hopes for the same with the upcoming second phase.

"When they did the project for Ooltewah, it was a nightmare for a while till they got it fixed," Thomas said of the widening work done back around 2010 on I-75's interchange at the Ooltewah exits about 10 miles to the north.

"I was kind of dreading it when they were going to start [at the I-24/I-75 interchange] but it's really not slowed my drive down much, so far," he said. "With phase II, we'll see."

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Contributed photo / This 1960 map from what was then called the Tennessee Department of Highways shows the status of the original Interstate 75 and Interstate 24 construction projects in Chattanooga, Tenn. The map is an inset taken from a larger map of interstate projects throughout Tennessee in 1960. Blue designates plans being developed, green designates right-of-way acquisition activity, yellow indicates construction is under way and red indicates completed work.

Over the past five decades, state and local officials on several occasions sought a fix for the problems at the interchange and its arteries, according to Times Free Press archives. The design of I-24 where it passed through the East Ridge and Brainerd areas drew fire in the mid-1960s when community leaders marched on City Hall to protest plans that excluded on-ramps and off-ramps. The remedy ended in the existing design that includes North Terrace and South Terrace roads. Moore Road was widened to four lanes on the Chattanooga side in 1969 to carry the increased traffic, according to archives.

Flynn said there are several steps to take before phase II becomes a blip on the construction radar.

"There is no cost estimate, construction timeline or schedule for phase II," she said.

"Our Strategic Transportation Investments Division is in the process of preparing a draft 'Interstate Access Request' to be sent to the Federal Highway Administration in Washington, D.C., for review and approval," Flynn said Friday. "This is normally a three- to six-month process unless there are any issues that we need to address in the [request]. If that is the case, it will take longer."

Other state improvement plan projects beginning in fiscal year 2022 include the relocation of Alcoa Highway in Blount County; work on Nolensville Pike in Davidson County and in Newport Highway in Sevier and Jefferson counties; and modifications to the Interstate 55 interchange at Crump Boulevard in Shelby County, according to plan documents.

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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