Because the pandemic has limited plant availability and hiked nursery prices, the beautification project to top off the $143.3 million U.S. Highway 27 reconstruction project through downtown Chattanooga — dubbed the Gateway to Chattanooga project — is being split into two phases after bids were rejected in June.
"This is another COVID result," said W. Neil Thomas III of the nonprofit Tennessee Interstate Conservancy, one of a group of players in the planning for the work. "When this project went out for bids, the bids were very, very high — as a matter of fact, above budget — because of the scarcity of trees, bushes and flowers."
The original estimate for the work on the Fourth Street and M.L. King interchanges was about $2.2 million, he said Thursday in a phone interview, but plant availability had plummeted and prices were as much as double the expectations.
"So we had to look at it and say, 'Given the money we have right now, we want people in Chattanooga to see something happen,'" Thomas said. "The plan is to use the funds we have available now for Fourth Street and then raise funds later for M.L. King."
Starting with plantings of blooming ornamental and native plants at the Fourth Street interchange, about one-third of the original project, the work could start in late December or early January — or next fall depending on timing, Thomas said.
The larger project at the M.L. King Boulevard interchange will be done later.
The timeline is pushed back from the previous estimate, when planting was supposed to start this fall.
Thomas said it's difficult for planners to predict how high bids will be for the Fourth Street phase until they come in.
The Fourth Street phase is being let for bids soon because planting work needs to take place in late December or early January in order for plants and trees to flourish, he said. There's a chance planting won't start until fall 2022.
"Our professional arborist has given us a schedule that says he'd prefer not to see anything planted after Dec. 31 and definitely not after Jan. 31 because that will result in immature trees being subject to dry weather," Thomas said. "We could lose them and we don't want that to happen."
A loss of the plants would be a financial disaster for the project, he said.
"We're tentatively looking at either the end of December to the end of January or early fall ," he said.
Despite the hang-up, Thomas said no one should get the impression the larger project at M.L. King Boulevard is being abandoned.
"That's not the case," he said.
Thomas, a former circuit court judge, spearheaded the conservancy that is teaming with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, local governments, businesses and others to install more than 1,000 trees of various species, 4-5 acres of wildflower species, thousands of daylilies and blue iris, the state flower, on the 21 acres surrounding the two interchanges.
The species chosen will provide visual interest most of the season, according to officials.
"The project has been resubmitted for [a] Dec. 10, 2021, letting and includes all the improvements originally proposed for the Fourth Street interchange and none of the improvements originally proposed at the M.L. King interchange," TDOT spokesperson Rae-Anne Bradley said in an emailed response to questions about the project. "No changes have been made to the plant species originally proposed at the Fourth Street interchange. The Fourth Street interchange will be designed exactly as planned."
Bradley said the work for both interchanges drew two bidders in June but both were asking for significantly more than original cost estimates and they were rejected.
"Both TDOT and the conservancy mutually agreed the best path forward would be to deliver full improvements at only one intersection, and the Fourth Street intersection was chosen," she said.
Thomas said the idea was to do the smaller portion first, making an impact on the interchange most often used by visitors to the Tennessee Aquarium and other attractions on the north end of downtown.
There was no landscaping plan for the original piece of Highway 27 that runs through downtown harking back to the 1950s and 1960s. It was officially called "Interstate 124," newspaper archives show.
Over the past five or six decades, traffic volume increased through downtown Chattanooga — an estimated 70,000 vehicles travel the corridor daily — and the previous winding design of U.S. 27 that contributed to crashes and daily backups made the Highway 27/Interstate 24 interchange the worst in Tennessee and one of the nation's worst commercial truck bottlenecks.
Now it has been reconstructed with straighter approaches and more lanes, with improved merging and interchanges.
The U.S. 27 reconstruction project itself also faced delays and cost overruns. It began in late-2015, and delays arose in 2018 that began to drive the price tag up from its original $126.3 million to $143.3 million after unanticipated underground problems sprang up in mid-2018.
Contractor Dement Construction sought an extension of 204 calendar days in 2019, but by the time the project was finally nearing completion around the end of last year, Dement had been assessed more than $1 million in damages — at $3,200 a day for portions not complete beyond the Jan. 28, 2020, completion date — assessed after continued delays. 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 $1.05 million.
Dement left the open spaces around the Fourth Street and M.L. King Boulevard interchanges seeded with grass in preparation for the upcoming landscaping work.
"Our TDOT Beautification Office hired a landscape architect to work directly with the Tennessee Interstate Conservancy, TDOT and the city to design the project and prepare plans," Bradley said.
If the landscaping is ready to start around the end of the year, drivers may notice "light earthwork to install pipes needed for the new irrigation system, wiring to the site in preparation for the lighting installation and the addition of soil to the site in preparation for the plants," she said.
"TDOT is funding the construction of the project and has an agreement with the city of Chattanooga that they will maintain the site once construction is complete," Bradley said. "This agreement is in place because the project is within the city limits. The city of Chattanooga has their own agreement with Hamilton County and the Tennessee Interstate Conservancy to maintain the site. TDOT's contribution is limited to the funding and construction of the project."
The Benwood Foundation provided the seed money for the project, Thomas noted.
"Keep your fingers crossed," he said. "We've been at this for five years and, by golly, we're sticking with it 'til it gets done."
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.
The Gateway to Chattanooga Project consists of landscaping the open areas on the two interchanges on U.S. Highway 27 through downtown Chattanooga — to be done in two phases — at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Fourth Street. Combined, they will include:
1,000: Trees, various species
1,100: Blue iris
4: Acres of more than 100 species of wildflowers
22: Acres of total landscaping
Source: Tennessee Interstate Conservancy