Approximately 50 community members attended a meeting to hear proposals and discuss future approaches to upgrading or possibly replacing the Wilcox Tunnel.
Although city officials were quick to admit that breaking ground on the massive undertaking was nowhere in the immediate future, they repeatedly stated that moving forward with design proposals and community forums was necessary to better facilitate future endeavors for federal dollars for the $50 million project.
The 80-year-old, two-lane tunnel no longer meets safety standards and prohibits traffic by emergency vehicles, buses, bicycles and pedestrians. Built in the early 1930s, the Wilcox Tunnel was not constructed with the type of traffic flow for the area between Shallowford Road and the city’s center, and it shows signs of age.
The tunnel’s roof regularly leaks, resulting in regular repairs to the structure.
Mark Heinzer, senior engineer for the city of Chattanooga, briefly showed slides that included at least two potential proposals for a new tunnel, along with corresponding approach routes. Heinzer said that improving the corridor running along Wilcox Boulevard had been marked on the city’s agenda for “many years.”
“Safety is the big thing here,” he said.
Councilmen Peter Murphy and Russell Gilbert attended the meeting.
During brief remarks, Murphy said that, in order for progress to be made in the surrounding community, certain “trade-offs” would have to take place, particularly with regards to the relationship between existing property and approach routes.
“With progress, there are going to have to be a few trade-offs,” Murphy said. “We have to be sensitive to that. But the growth of East Chattanooga has been retarded in part because of this tunnel. It is a very expensive proposition.”
Murphy added that it would take the equivalent of Chattanooga’s annual capital budget for at least three years to fully fund the project.
The city, which has voted to designate $17 million of general funds to be put toward tunnel maintenance and the pursuit of securing additional funds for a new tunnel, has failed on two occasions to secure federal grants for the project. City engineer Bill Payne said that the only way to speed up the project would be to secure the necessary funding from sources outside the city.
“The only way to expedite the project is to have capital funding,” he said.
Several residents offered questions and comments regarding the proposal, covering a range of views. Many asked why work to replace the tunnel had continually stalled, while others commented on their desire to not have any construction or expansion of approach routes affect their property.
“They actually want to take some of my property,” one woman said. “It’s my retirement home, and it is so peaceful up there. All you hear is birds and no traffic.”