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Front Page - Friday, June 23, 2017

Jenkins Perspective: Traffic purgatory – Not as bad as Atlanta, but ...

I, like you, am a commuter. Not that I can complain. I get to miss rush hour – both ways – with my cushy radio schedule (The Clubhouse, noon-2 p.m. weekdays on WAAK, 94.7 FM). But each day I have to head out, my producer riding shotgun, and return home.

From Brainerd to Ringgold, home of WAAK, is about a 13-mile dash, barely more than 20 minutes if you hit the lights right. Jump on Brainerd Road, right onto Belvoir, left onto South Terrace and dash onto I-24, to I-75 South, disembark on the first Ringgold exit and – BAM – I’m a mile and a-half from the studio.

Piece of cake, right?

Got to admit, that most mornings, it’s just that. Afternoon can be anything, but knowing the shortcuts is valuable local knowledge.

Even as I head out this morning, I know I need to cherish these quick little jaunts to and from because these days are numbered. On that 13-mile strip of asphalt, when the first orange traffic cone goes down, it will not be leaving again for years and years and years. I am about to enter into what I consider to be traffic purgatory.

Why purgatory? Why not simply call it traffic hell, a place of eternal damnation and soul-sucking traffic with exhaust and heat and cones and cones and cones …

Well, because it’s not quite that bad. This isn’t Atlanta, or even Marietta. We’re talking Chattanooga to Ringgold; how bad can it be?

We’re calling it purgatory because that is a place where souls sit and await their fate, day after day. Endless repetition.

My little commute is about to be disrupted by road construction. That’s hardly news, and not likely to generate one iota of sympathy from anyone who’s lived in Knoxville, Memphis or even Nashville in the last two decades. All of these cities have been crippled, if not paralyzed, by road work for years at a time.

So make no mistake. Not seeking sympathy here. Just empathy. If we’re going to throw ourselves a pity party, we can pick a better topic than this.

But this story is remarkable in one detail alone: after years of being the same old, same old, this 13-mile stretch of nothing special is about to undergo three major facelifts/upgrades due to projects in two different states. And it’s a question of when, not if; the legislation has been signed, the contracts allocated, the costs determined.

Like a tsunami of concrete, it’s coming.

The first cone will drop on Exit 1. Better known as the East Ridge exit, it is literally the gateway to Tennessee, and for years, has been a home of aging hotels and expensive last-chance gas. It would have already begun if not for the boondoggle of the city of East Ridge having to remove or replace an underground pipe that has already been designated obsolete when the new exit is built. But for the few months or years it is still required, the city of East Ridge has to foot the bill for an upgraded holdover that will itself be obsolete when the main construction is ready to begin.

The original projected cost of $2 million is growing daily, and there have already been concerns about how it will all be paid for.

“It has to be done, and I will find the dollars,” Scott Miller, East Ridge city manager told the Times Free Press in January.

The project itself deals principally with the exit ramps on the eastern side of the interstate. The banked cloverleaf ramps on and off Ringgold Road will be replaced by straight line ramps that line up directly with the entrance road to Camp Jordan and the new Bass Pro Shop that has been built adjacent to the camp.

Multiple motels and eateries have been placed on hold awaiting the ramp construction, and each delay has hung up their eventual arrival into the East Ridge economy. Also eagerly awaiting it is TDOT, which is planning a massive $65 million project – all its own – barely a tenth of a mile farther up the road.

Jennifer Flynn, a spokesperson for TDOT based in Chattanooga, has already gone on the record saying that the state and the city of East Ridge are working together to make sure the two projects dovetail nicely into one massive traffic problem. Actually, that’s not what she said: she was indirectly quoted as saying the two projects will “mesh smoothly.”

The TDOT project was kicked off officially by the governor holding a signing ceremony at the East Ridge Welcome Center this past week. The short version of this adjacent construction is “revision of the I-24/I-75 interchange.” But the reality is that this relatively level piece of pavement is about to be turned into a series of high-soaring ramps and multiple bridges to prevent the almost weekly occurrence of a semi or badly-loaded flatbed truck launch itself or its payload into the weeds on a badly constructed curve onto I-75 North.

But the exact configuration and overall number of ramps and bridges that will come to pass is not yet even official. The much-needed exit onto Spring Creek Road, which should have been the top priority of this thing, hasn’t been guaranteed or even discussed much as we sit here today.

Contracts for the construction won’t be solicited until the Fiscal 2018 year. It will take more than a year to complete – but if the amazing flying bridge in Cobb County, Georgia, that’s parallel to I-75, is any indication, the construction itself will be something to behold.

But crossing the Georgia state line is no escape from the work ahead. Contracts have been acquired from the expansion of what is commonly called the Alabama Highway, which begins just north of the downtown Ringgold footprint. For now, it’s just extending a little less than three miles from start to finish, but it’s a much-needed project, as too-narrow bridges over the interstate and convoluted turn lanes currently are in abundance.

The other end of the project is the new Catoosa County campus of Georgia Northwestern Technical College, which just celebrated its first year serving the county with state-of-the-art technical training. The cost of this project has been projected at a cool $23 million.

The scary part of this for the commuter is that, on the best of days, cars dangle from the end of the short off-ramp alongside full-speed traffic late in the afternoon. This could easily be a full-time concern if traffic has a problem getting onto Alabama Highway.

What I, and many other drivers, will no doubt be grateful for is that there is an exit that precedes it. Once the first orange cone goes down on the Alabama High, the Fort Oglethorpe Parkway becomes my new daily commute.