Traffic has been turned loose on the last piece of the $32 million Interstate 24-South Broad Street improvement project on Chattanooga's Southside as the newly constructed frontage road paralleling the freeway quietly opened this week.
The project stands at 91.66% complete and on budget, the Tennessee Department of Transportation said.
"The frontage road was fully opened to traffic Monday morning," department spokesperson Rae Anne Bradley said Friday in an email. "The contractor will have a few minor work items to complete after that date related to cleaning up the project."
On Friday, traffic was relatively light as motorists discovered the new road was open. A few pedestrians were using the new sidewalks, and traffic from South Broad was able to take it all the way to the I-24 on-ramp at Market Street. The frontage road — really an extended ramp — has no signage naming it.
The contractor, Charleston, Tennessee-based Wright Brothers Construction, started work in September 2020 and was dogged by supply chain issues in the summer of 2022. Still, the Tennessee Department of Transportation said crews remained on schedule for an Aug. 31 finish.
"We're excited this much-needed project is being completed on time and on budget," state transportation Assistant Chief Engineer Daniel Oliver said Friday in an emailed statement. "This project improves the safety and operation of the interstate, as well as provides improved access to U.S. 27, Broad and Market streets, and other points on the south side of the city. The new facility will accommodate current and future traffic demands, promote economic growth and support area redevelopment."
When federal interstates were completed in the 1960s, the area of the current project was called the "big scramble" for its sprawling design, and the traffic count in the area in 1966 had increased from 37,000 to 51,000 vehicles per day, according to Chattanooga Times Free Press archives.
The traffic count in the same area now ranges from about 72,000 per day west of the city to almost 119,000 vehicles per day between Missionary Ridge and the U.S. 27 interchange, according to 2022 state traffic data. Broad Street's traffic count data from 2022 was around 23,000 vehicles per day south of the interchange and almost 12,000 per day between the interchange and downtown.
The area around I-24 and South Broad has often been called the gateway to Chattanooga from the west, but the existing loops and ramps that served as exits and entrances were outdated, according to state officials. The project aimed to improve the safety and operation of the interstate and accommodate current and future traffic demands, promote economic growth and support area redevelopment, something Tennessee Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said drove the project from day one. Now it's nearly complete.
"It turned out better than I expected. I was surprised how well it all came about and got done on time and within the budget we gave them," Gardenhire said in a phone interview. "It looks nice, it's operational, it serves a purpose. Regardless of whether or not they were going to develop the Southside or South Broad Street, that was a needed exit."
The new configuration is safer, and it makes getting around the areas south of downtown easier, especially for out-of-town people who are unfamiliar with the city, TDOT officials said.
"It's going to be a lot more convenient for people in a lot of ways," Gardenhire said. "For example, if you're coming up from Birmingham, (Alabama), or Nashville and you wanted to go to St. Elmo, Lookout Mountain or Alton Park, you don't have to take the route on the old Cummings Highway around Lookout Mountain now. You can get off at that exit and be right where you need to go."
Gardenhire was glad the state pressed for the project and that the legislature funded it, he said. The completed project will have a positive effect on ongoing efforts to widen I-24 heading west and improve the I-24/U.S. 27 interchange, the state senator said.
"It's really going to be nice to not only get off on South Broad but to continue on to Market Street," he said. "It takes traffic off The Howard School area, and that's the important thing. You have the Mary Walker Towers that had a lot of traffic on both sides, and that's going to be eliminated. That's going to be a big safety feature for The Howard School neighborhood."
The completion of the project should trigger more development, Gardenhire said.
"As far as other development on South Broad, now there's no excuse," he said. "For all the people who have promised us big development plans and have gotten all sorts of big breaks, now it's their turn to deliver on their promises."
Though recent improvements are making traffic flow better, the narrow path I-24 cuts going west from Chattanooga is still an area that sees frequent backups.
The adjacent I-24 and U.S. Highway 27 interchange where traffic heads north through downtown Chattanooga or west toward Nashville remains on the Top 100 Trucking Bottlenecks listed by the American Transportation Research Institute for 2023. At No. 39, the interchange still shows improved traffic numbers over its previous No. 29 spot in 2022. The I-24/Interstate 75 interchange, a project now in its second phase, near the Georgia state line, makes the list at No. 59.
Bradley said crews next week will continue wrapping up the details. All work remains weather dependent, but the National Weather Service forecast calls for a sunny sky and mostly dry weather going into August.
"The contractor will be placing final pavement markings, and installing right-of-way fencing on the project," she said of work in the coming days.