Cooper: Fed funds boost city road fixes

Cooper: Fed funds boost city road fixes

May 15th, 2019 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Broken pavement is evident on Altamont Road after a year-plus of excess rain in the Chattanooga area.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Crime may increase and garbage service may lag, but if a street is full of potholes and driving over it feels like several miles of washboard, complaints about roads easily will outnumber the rest.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who released the city's fiscal 2020 budget Tuesday, knows this all too well.

Fortunately for him, crime has not increased, and garbage service operates effectively. But roads, well, have you got a minute?

Berke's budget will include almost $29 million for street work, the most in Chattanooga's history.

It's "a monstrous amount" of repairs, the mayor told Times Free Press editors and reporters earlier this week.

In Berke's tenure, the money spent on road repairs has risen from $1.5 million to $6 million to nearly five times that number. The jump this year includes some $20 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for various repairs stemming in part from the record amount of rain the area saw in 2018 and in February of this year.

The city, he said, has to put in more than $8 million to access the money from FEMA.

If it is spent on projects on the roads you drive, you'll feel like it is money well spent. If it's not, well, the mayor may be getting another phone call.

The biggest number of road problems and potholes, Berke said last month, come from cuts in the road. A city without much growth is not going to have as many cuts in its roads from sewer, electrical or other utility work. A city on the move will.

No matter how perfect the road repair is completed after a cut, though, water is still bound to slip into a seam. The more rain, the more water seeps in. The more water seeps in, the more wearing away of the asphalt and the ground underneath. The more wearing away of the asphalt and the ground underneath, the more potholes, dips and bumps.

Plus, Berke said earlier this week, admitting he's no engineer, in Chattanooga's hilly environs, the ground under roads naturally shifts. Where the shifts cause cracks, water gets in and starts eroding the roadbed. Eventually, weak places on hilly roads can collapse.

The mayor said the road work will cover three big projects, Elder Mountain Road, Hamill Road and Lake Resort Drive, and many smaller ones.

All three roads have had a history of problems from excess rain.

For example:

In 1975, according to newspaper archives, a public hearing on zoning was held concerning locations in Lookout Valley, including Elder Mountain Road, that would be subject to "seasonal or periodic flooding."

In 1991, a hole in the pavement at Hixson Pike and Hamill Road from excess rain had merchants concerned about the money they were losing during repairs. In 2010, Hamill Road was named one of two roads said to be waiting for money for complete reconstruction due in part to rain damage.

In 1990, part of the shoulder of Lake Resort Drive "sloughed off" from heavy rains, causing a gaping hole and forcing the road to be closed until repairs could be made.

The city has accessed FEMA money before, according to Berke, "but not to this level."

The money was available because rainfall in 2018 was ranked the 13th most on record for Chattanooga but was the wettest year ever for the Tennessee River basin. Then, February, while the second wettest in Chattanooga history, was the wettest in Tennessee Valley annals.

The road repairs won't be the city's only federal government roads tie-in, either. The city has money in its fiscal 2019 budget and will have money in its fiscal 2020 budget for an infrastructure project involving Third and Fourth streets.

The project will be funded with 80% federal funds and 20% city funds.

The redevelopment of the two streets, first announced in 2015, has received approval under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which establishes that governments give proper consideration to the environment before undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment.

Berke said NEPA approval was a big hurdle and "sets the table for medical development" along Third Street, creating "a health and wellness district". Visible work on the project, he said, could start as soon as the end of 2020.

"It's transformational," he said.

With all of the above, along with the likes of implementing parts of previously disclosed plans for eliminating homelessness, completing segments of the city's greenway system and giving city workers a 2.5% raise, Berke is requesting only a 1% budget increase and no property tax rise.

"It's fiscally responsible," he said. "We're making sure we continue to fund [projects that offer] results for people."

A dearth of potholes may give those City Hall phones a rest, too.

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