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10-year plan for I-24 in Chattanooga seeks private sector partners for ‘choice lanes’

From the Chattanooga Times Free Press: The state's new plan to alleviate traffic on Interstate 24 around Moccasin Bend will include traditional an

From the Chattanooga Times Free Press: The state’s new plan to alleviate traffic on Interstate 24 around Moccasin Bend will include traditional and pay-to-drive “choice lanes.” But what will the combined design look like?


Planning is preliminary on the new pay-to-drive lanes that will be maintained by private investors but owned by the state, according to an email from Tennessee Department of Transportation spokesperson Rae Anne Bradley.


“TDOT is still in the early stages of determining exactly where and when the future choice lanes will be, but we are looking at some of the state’s most congested, urban areas to see where they can have the biggest impact,” Bradley said. “The proposed choice lanes project for the Chattanooga area is I-24 near Moccasin Bend.”


The state also has a traditional widening project planned for I-24 spanning from the state line near Wildwood, Georgia, to the U.S. Highway 27 interchange on Moccasin Bend, she said.


“Due to its size, the project was broken up into several smaller projects, with the first being from Browns Ferry to U.S. 27 currently in preliminary engineering,” Bradley said.


That portion is included in the state’s 10-year project plan, with construction scheduled for fiscal year 2027, she added.


Tennessee’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.


In Chattanooga, the pay-to-drive lanes would be an addition to the I-24 corridor under Gov. Bill Lee’s Transportation Modernization Act passed earlier this year, she said.


“This will require traffic and revenue studies to determine the financial viability of adding the choice lanes, which will necessitate private sector contributions due to the overall project cost,” Bradley said. “The overlap of the widening and choice lanes will be addressed in the studies to best leverage available funds and maximize congestion relief along I-24.”


Tennessee truck bottlenecks

Seven interchanges in the state are among the worst bottlenecks in the nation.

9. Nashville: Interstate 24/Interstate 40 at Interstate 440 east.

37. Nashville: I-40 at Interstate 65 east.

39. Chattanooga: I-24 at U.S. Highway 27.

51. Nashville: I-65 at I-24.

59. Chattanooga: Interstate 75 at I-24.

63. Knoxville: I-40/I-75 at Interstate 140.

72. Knoxville: I-40 at Interstate 275.

Source: American Transportation Research Institute Top 100 Bottlenecks – 2023

Traffic-snarled history

The traffic-snarled western stretch of I-24 in Chattanooga has been in the state’s crosshairs for a long time.


I-24’s interchanges with U.S. 27 in Chattanooga and Interstates 40 and 65 in Nashville are longtime fixtures on the American Transportation Research Institute’s Top 100 Truck Bottlenecks — at No. 39, No. 9 and No. 51, respectively, this year.


The state transportation agency’s plan focuses on adding travel lanes — fee-free traditional lanes and “choice lanes” — in the I-24 corridor. The “choice lanes” would be privately built and maintained. Drivers can decide whether to pay a fee to a private entity to use the lanes, which would help ease Chattanooga traffic congestion, according to an agency news release, officials and documents related to the plan.


The state’s $15 billion 10-year plan includes the agency’s annual work program budget of approximately $1.2 billion for 10 years, plus the $3 billion state general fund appropriation provided in Lee’s act, according to a news release. The plan contains 93 projects.


While specifics are still misty, Cleveland Republican Rep. Dan Howell, state House Transportation Committee chair, said the public-private partnership will provide additional pay-to-drive lanes along existing interstates without a net loss of fee-free lanes.


There are some concerns, Howell said via email, and first is cost.


“The state’s annual heavy construction budget is $1.2 billion, of which about half goes towards maintaining our roads and bridges to ensure we keep our assets in good state of repair, while the other half goes towards new construction projects, like widenings, interchange improvements, etc. across the entire state,” he said. “With the cost of a major interstate improvement like a choice lane project costing around $1 billion on its own, the state would not be able to deliver a project of this size and scope without a partnership with the private sector.


“By using a public-private partnership model, the state can leverage the state’s resources with private sector investment to deliver a mega-project that it would otherwise be unable to afford without cutting off investment throughout the rest of the state and in maintenance for a given year,” Howell continued.


Rep. Greg Vital, R-Harrison, vice-chair of the transportation committee, sees Lee’s modernization act and pay-to-drive lanes idea as an answer to Tennessee’s infrastructure and transportation system’s “perfect storm.”


The storm is the result of population growth, a yearslong backlog of deferred maintenance and upgrades, increasing big rig and vehicular traffic, and increasing weights among all vehicles, Vital said. In Chattanooga, Moccasin Bend is one of I-24’s three “M” problems, the other two being Moore Road and Missionary Ridge, the state representative said. I-24 through Moccasin Bend and Missionary Ridge has been virtually unchanged since the early 1960s.


Tennessee Department of Transportation / The congestion action plan for Interstate 24 in Chattanooga relative to congestion studies completed in August 2022.

Chattanooga’s ongoing work

I-24 already has an ongoing interchange improvement project where it intersects with Interstate 75 near the Georgia state line at the infamous I-75/I-24 split in Chattanooga. I-24 is at least three lanes wide just west of the split project area, then becomes three lanes going west through the Missionary Ridge “ridge cut” and into the South Broad Street area where recently completed improvements give drivers on I-24 east access to Chattanooga’s Southside.


But west of downtown Chattanooga, I-24 is a two-lane, 1960s-era freeway sandwiched by the Tennessee River, a CSX railroad line and Lookout Mountain, a situation that creates hourslong backups sometimes extending into Marion County to the west and into Georgia to the east onto I-75.


As I-24 snakes out of the Tennessee River Gorge from Hamilton County into Marion County, it’s confined by the river and more mountainous terrain until it climbs over Monteagle Mountain. From there, it descends onto flatter terrain in Middle Tennessee heading toward Nashville, potentially linking up with plans for pay-to-drive lanes.

According to the Department of Transportation’s August 2022 congestion action plan for Chattanooga’s end of I-24, snarls through the corridor are worst in the eastbound direction at 8 a.m. and westbound between 4-5 p.m.


Proposed plans for pay-to-drive lanes on I-24 around Moccasin Bend won’t intrude further into the Tennessee River, TDOT Deputy Commissioner and Chief Engineer Will Reid said at the plan’s unveiling Dec. 18.


Reid viewed the fix as a welcome engineering challenge and said an elevated design would be the likely plan to keep new lanes in a tighter footprint.


“We would likely go up with structure — you got a railroad on one side, the river on the other, so you would likely have elevated structure to have managed lanes, which is very typical, that you see across the country,” Reid said Dec. 18 during the plan’s unveiling in Nashville.


For private investors, the idea’s feasibility becomes a function of costs versus potential revenue generated from toll lanes, he said.


Chattanooga’s I-24 corridor and anticipated growth along it make it ripe for private investment, according to the 10-year plan, and the state agency has commissioned traffic and revenue studies and is in conversations with private-sector partners to probe the feasibility of choice lanes in Chattanooga.


Private-sector buy-in

So, how much private-sector interest is there?


“From what I understand, there has been a great deal of interest from the public-private partnership industry in several corridors in Tennessee, including I-24 in the Chattanooga area,” Howell said. “With public-private partnerships, which will be used to design, build, finance, operate and maintain choice lanes, there is a lot of innovation and experience navigating unique challenges related to available space and terrain challenges.”


Howell said he saw the success of similar partnerships in Dallas, where express lane designs were developed for a limited space.


“So while I don’t know the exact specifics of what that solution might look like in Chattanooga, I feel confident that innovation within the public-private partnership industry would be able to address challenges like terrain around Chattanooga,” Howell said.


Meanwhile, the plan and toll roads have critics.


The state plan “lacks courage and vision” to address major quality-of-life issues for families, according to House Democratic Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons, of Nashville.


“Instead of presenting a long-term plan with forward-thinking solutions to one of the biggest challenges facing workers, Gov. Lee has presented a plan with several fundamental flaws,” Clemmons said in a statement when the plan was unveiled.


Clemmons said he believes the plans will be outdated long before they can be fully implemented and long after Lee departs office in 2027.



There are about 70 corridors using pay-to-drive lanes in 12 metropolitan areas across the U.S., with the same number being designed and under construction, according to the state. While they’re not exact examples, state transportation officials point to Tampa, Florida’s, reversible express lanes installed in 2005, Interstate 85’s express lanes added in Atlanta in 2011, 35 Texpress lanes added in Texas in 2017 and express lanes added to Interstate 77 in North Carolina in 2019.


According to the Federal Highway Administration, the number of vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. has increased by more than 70% in the last 20 years. At the same time, highway capacity has only grown by 0.3%. Federal officials refer to concepts similar to choice lanes as “managed lanes,” meaning they create a freeway within a freeway.