Friday, October 24, 2014 · 2:04 p.m.
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The Wilcox Tunnel. (Photo: Staff)

With the 80-year-old Wilcox Tunnel still causing traffic headaches on Chattanooga's northeast side, city officials will meet with residents Thursday night to discuss future plans for major rehabilitations—and perhaps a new tunnel.

The meeting is the latest in a series of attempts by the city to upgrade or replace the two-lane tunnel, which no longer meets current safety standards and prohibits bus, bicycle and pedestrian use. 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 in mind, and it has created a bottleneck for traffic and emergency vehicles. 

The meeting is scheduled to be held in the Eastdale Community Center from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday. 

Mark Heinzer, senior engineer for the city of Chattanooga, said that the topic of the meeting would be the design phase for what will be an exhaustive, expensive project.

"We're not talking about digging or breaking ground," he said.

The design process will likely have an impact on future endeavors by the city to procure federal funding for the project, which is expected to be in excess of $50 million. Heinzer said having a design in place would be beneficial to the city down the road when federal funds become available.

"One of the big things with getting federal dollars is that projects have to be shovel-ready," Heinzer said. "You have to have the design up front in case the opportunity presents itself. We have different options, and we're coming to the public to get their feedback. We'll discuss several scenarios."

Heinzer said that at least three potential options would be discussed at Thursday's meeting.

Recent efforts by the city to attain federal grants for a tunnel project have come up short. Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield, said that the discussion was necessary regardless of the fact that the city was not currently seeking a grant for the project, and he added that the picture for federal funding would be clearer after the resolution of ongoing budget issues taking place in Washington, D.C. 

"With the president's administration staying the same, along with everything that's happening on the federal level, I don't think anyone can predict what is going to happen at this point," Beeland said. "But this is a very expensive project, and we are going to have to have some resources from outside of the city in order to complete it."

With four months remaining in Littlefield's final term, the task of taking on the tunnel will be left to the next mayor. Beeland said it would be "premature" to estimate a target date for completion of the project because of unknown variables. 

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