If you have ever driven in the spring through interstate and U.S. highways in Texas interspersed by medians filled with bluebonnets, you know what a difference those flowers can make in an otherwise non-aesthetically pleasing ribbon of roadway.
As drivers cross the Tennessee River and approach downtown Chattanooga from the north on U.S. Highway 27 today, they encounter an ugly, unbroken work-site and often a labyrinthine snarl of traffic.
It's hardly the best introduction to a city residents know is scenically beautiful and filled with beautiful treasures of visual art.
One day — this fall, officials say — the Highway 27 work will be completed, and drivers will have a straighter, safer and more functional roadway into the city.
If planners are successful, they'll also in time have a more beautiful one.
The Tennessee Interstate Conservancy hopes to make the Fourth Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard interchanges not just two improved concrete exits from the highway but also a model of beautification with landscaping using native and ornamental plants.
The landscape architect's renderings of the area show a sea of green at each interchange — 22 acres in total — that will provide visual interest through most of the year. The plan foresees 1,000 trees of various species, 1,300 daylilies, 1,100 blue iris and four acres of more than 100 species of wildflowers.
Fittingly, it's called the "Gateway to Chattanooga" project.
We believe the opportunity is there for many more such projects now and in the future by the coalition assembled by the aforementioned nonprofit group, or others, surrounding some of our interstates and U.S. highways.
Two other opportunities involving the area's major thoroughfares are the Interstate 75-Interstate 24 interchange project, currently underway, and the future I-24 project, a 10-mile stretch of road that will be widened between I-59 and U.S. 27. Both are part of former Gov. Bill Haslam's 2017 Improve Act.
We see U.S. 27, especially from its interchange at state Highway 153 to Soddy Lake, as another possibility. The flat, largely straight sector makes it an especially inviting target.
A generation or two ago, groups of garden clubs might have gotten together to spearhead such efforts, or one garden club might get permission to take a mile of highway and another garden club the next. Now, any remaining garden clubs that have the time and resources to pull off such tasks are few and far between.
Thus, the visible beautification efforts surrounding area highways in recent years have been few. Among those, before recent construction projects, were the Bradford pear trees in the medians at the I-75/I-24 interchange, the occasional tulip plantings on overpasses at the same interchange, and the crepe myrtles at the U.S. 27 M.L. King Jr. exit.
The Tennessee Interstate Conservancy is spearheaded by former Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Neil Thomas, who understands from his years on the bench the importance of collaborations in trying to accomplish tasks. In the Highway 27 effort, he is joined by the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT), local governments (including Chattanooga city forester Gene Hyde), businesses, foundations and others.
The former jurist said he got the idea from North Carolina interstates he glimpsed while driving to Chapel Hill. In the Tar Heel State, wildflower beds are installed and maintained by the Roadside Environmental Unit of the state Department of Transportation in each of 14 highway divisions.
Former first lady Dottie Martin is credited with initiating the idea for the state's wildflower program after reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about wildflower beds — likely bluebonnets — in Texas.
But Texas and North Carolina are not the only states with thriving landscaping programs. Just to name two, Georgia's wildflower program dates to 1974 and is maintained by the Georgia Department of Transportation, and West Virginia's program began with a test site under the state's Division of Natural Resources in 1990 and today has been expanded to more than 250 acres.
In Chattanooga, and perhaps eventually across Tennessee, projects will be collaborative. For instance, TDOT will pay for the initial Highway 27 plantings. Maintenance on the 22 acres will be handled by the city, Hamilton County and the Tennessee Interstate Conservancy.
The hope, Thomas said, is to create a fund that will sustain the organization's work at the sites "for 10 to 20 years."
Already, he said, there is interest across the the state in similar collaboratives.
While roads bring tourists into a city, colorful, interesting and aesthetically pleasing plantings may tell those who come that this is place that has a lot to offer. And, thanks to Thomas and others, they'd be right.