Opinion: Revamp round two: I-75/I-24 project likely to be a bumpy ride, but we will survive

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / An illuminated sign Thursday warns motorists on eastbound Interstate 24 that the Moore Road off-ramp was to close Friday.

Let the grumbling begin.

With phase two of the Interstate 75/Interstate 24 interchange reconstruction project beginning, motorists who use Brainerd area on-ramps and off-ramps from I-24, the Moore Road and McBrien Road bridges, and North Terrace and South Terrace will be in for some changes — until sometime in 2025.

But with road improvements come inconvenience and frustration, and it's something Chattanoogans have dealt with off and on since the portion of the interstate in question was originally built in 1961-1962.

Among the headaches that mounted between the time bids were put out for construction of the I-24 portion in December 1960 and the roadway's tie-in with I-75 coming from East Brainerd Road in December 1962 were the number of lanes the interstate would carry through the stretch; the feared traffic snarls at Belvoir Avenue, which was the western end of the stretch opened at the time; and the number of access ramps between the interchange with I-75 and the foot of Missionary Ridge.

— As the construction project went out for bids in December 1960, news articles noted the stretch had been designed for three lanes each way, but the state had cut it back to two. But there still was hope that three lanes might be the final result.

Alas, the interstate stretch was built with only two lanes each way, but it was widened to three lanes east and west in the late 1980s.

— When the stretch of I-24 opened from the I-75 interchange to Germantown Road in October 1962, motorists initially had to exit going west at Belvoir Avenue and use routes such as Main Street, Brainerd Road or Ringgold Road to travel into downtown Chattanooga. The thought at the time was that the portion from Belvoir to Germantown would remain closed until the connection over Missionary Ridge was completed in 1965.

A Chattanooga Times editorial begged to differ, saying "motorists are looking longingly at the finished stretch between Belvoir Avenue and Germantown Road that has been blocked off by a row of barrels" — probably orange, and suggested slight alterations and a modified cloverleaf entrance-exit design would allow use of the portion.

A second editorial around the same time foresaw traffic bottlenecks at Belvoir, and eventually Germantown, because all westbound interstate traffic would have to exit.

"The city (Chattanooga)," it said, "recognizing the imminent use of Germantown as a principal link in the inbound and outbound traffic patterns, has urged state cooperation in widening the street." The state, however, said such an occurrence would be "a long time in coming."

(More than 60 years later, while the portion of Germantown from the interstate to Ringgold Road was widened, the portion from the interstate to Brainerd Road was not.)

Ultimately, as the Times editorial suggested, the finished portion of I-24 to Donaldson Road, several blocks past Germantown, was opened, though without any cloverleaf configuration.

— When the Brainerd portion that opened in October 1962 was linked to I-75 coming from East Brainerd Road two months later, traffic did begin to pile up at Belvoir, as the Times editorial suggested. Motorists, the city and even local businesses said the answer could be another exit onto what was then called the north frontage road (North Terrace) between Spring Creek Road and McBrien Road.

Similar to the story of the number of lanes on the interstate stretch, it was learned the original planners had drawn in three westbound exits from I-24 onto the frontage road, but the federal Bureau of Public Roads had reduced them.

"We predicted this [traffic] problem would exist," said city coordinator Marble Hensley, "when the Bureau of Public Roads eliminated ... the ramps that were designed by [the state's] consultant."

Things became so tense that the city even threatened to close the interstate stretch. And it's unclear who gave the go-ahead, but a third exit was temporarily put in place. It was removed sometime after the "Ridge Cut" portion of the interstate was completed in 1965.

Although interstate numbers were first designated in 1957, few news stories of the day described the route on the east side of Missionary Ridge as I-24, preferring instead "freeway," "Brainerd freeway" or "Brainerd Parkway."

And we had to sigh when we read the words from a Dec. 9, 1960, Chattanooga News-Free Press article stating that "The parkway ... will be designed to beautify the area through which it passes ... ."

Interstates are necessary conveyances, but few stretches of such highways, unless they have medians planted with wildflowers or intentionally skirt areas of natural beauty, beautify an area on their own.

The $161 million phase two of the I-75/I-24 reconstruction project (the original Brainerd segment cost $4.5 million) will inconvenience motorists over the next few years, but the end product will be worth the trouble when it makes our commutes smoother, quicker and allows fewer harmful automobile emissions in the air.