Beautification plans to top off the state's now-complete $143.3 million reconstruction of U.S. Highway 27 through downtown — dubbed the Gateway to Chattanooga project — are on hold as the state reviews a new $5.1 million bid for the first half of the work after a bid received Dec. 10 was rejected.
The gateway project originally consisted of two landscaping projects — one at the M.L. King Boulevard interchange and the other at the Fourth Street interchange — aimed at transforming the open spaces into lush plantings with species that provide visual interest.
The project was split into separate projects last year because of soaring nursery prices and scarcity of plants, and officials targeted Fourth Street for beautification work first to be followed later by the somewhat larger area at the M.L. King Boulevard interchange.
Dement Construction Co. was the only bidder with a price of $5.7 million, Tennessee Department of Transportation spokesperson Rae-Anne Bradley said Thursday in an email regarding Dement's rejected Dec. 10 bid.
Dement, the contractor on the original Highway 27 reconstruction project, was also the lone bidder this time around with a lower bid under revisions that removed items such as accent lighting and project-specific maintenance, Bradley said Friday in a phone interview. The maintenance specification was a special provision that went outside typical standards and revisions made those specifications meet regular standards, she said.
Dement's most recent bid is $5.1 million, but even so, the company's last two bids for Fourth Street are more than twice officials' original, pre-pandemic cost estimate of $2.2 million for the entire, two-interchange project.
"The department is currently reviewing the submitted bid pricing to make a determination on contract award," Bradley said. "If awarded, plantings will begin in the fall of 2022 with a final completion date of April 1, 2023."
The project is a joint effort of TDOT, the city, county, Ragan+Smith Associates and others, according to the Tennessee Interstate Conservancy, the coordinator on the project. The Benwood Foundation provided the seed money for the project, officials said.
W. Neil Thomas III, president and board member of the non-profit conservancy, said Thursday in a phone interview changes were made "to make the project more biddable."
Thomas, a former circuit court judge, spearheaded the conservancy that has teamed up with TDOT, 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 of open space surrounding the two interchanges.
The beautification project — considered from conception to be a model for the rest of the state — was planned separately from the Highway 27 reconstruction project that began in late 2015.
The beautification work was to begin when the road project was done but the Highway 27 reconstruction project also ran into problems and delays. Those issues 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.
Dement sought an extension of 204 calendar days in 2019, but by the time the project was finally nearing completion around the end of 2020, 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. 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.
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 M.L. King 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
As the road work came to a close, 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.
Then the pandemic hit and plant prices soared as availability plunged, officials said.
The original, pre-pandemic estimate for the work on the Fourth Street and M.L. King interchanges was about $2.2 million, officials said in October, but plant availability had plummeted and prices were as much as double expectations in July 2021 bidding so the two-interchange project was split in half for the unsuccessful December bid letting.
Ragan+Smith vice president of landscape architecture and land planning Brett Smith said the pandemic's impact on the nursery industry is far-reaching.
"We are seeing crazy price increases in the public and private sector landscape projects all across the state," Smith said Friday in a phone interview. "One of the biggest things is just availability. With all the development that's happening in Chattanooga and Atlanta and Nashville, there's just a lack of plant stock and materials."
Smith said the scale of the gateway project, at more than 21 acres in total, requires an enormous quantity of plants and materials just as a plant and material shortage combined with a labor shortage is hitting the industry hard.
"We are seeing significant availability issues even on the smallest projects," Smith said. "There are only so many nurseries growing so many trees, shrubs and ground cover and wildflowers. When it's in high demand, you have what we have."
To find out more about the Tennessee Interstate Conservancy’s Gateway to Chattanooga beautification project and how to help, go to tennesseeinterstateconservancy.org.
Landscaping amounted to straw and grass seed for the original piece of Highway 27 that traces a path through downtown that harks back to the 1950s and 1960s.
Back then it was officially called "Interstate 124," newspaper archives show.
Over the past half-century, 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 Highway 27 has been reconstructed with straighter approaches and more lanes, with improved merging and interchanges.
According to officials, TDOT is funding the construction of the Gateway to Chattanooga project and has an agreement with the city of Chattanooga for maintenance of the site once construction is complete. The agreement is in place because the project is within the city limits, and the city of Chattanooga has its own agreement with Hamilton County and the Tennessee Interstate Conservancy to maintain the site, officials said.