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Renovations Likely to Begin in March 2025 On Chattanooga's Historic Walnut Street Bridge

Tue May 28, 2024 - Southeast Edition #12
Chattanooga Times Free Press

A view through the arch of the Market Street bridge by the Tennessee Aquarium with the Veterans Bridge behind the Walnut Street bridge.
Photo courtesy of Eric Olson
A view through the arch of the Market Street bridge by the Tennessee Aquarium with the Veterans Bridge behind the Walnut Street bridge.

Officials in Chattanooga, Tenn., kicked off the city's efforts to conduct the first major renovations of the 134-year-old Walnut Street Bridge in three decades by advertising the project for bids on May 26.

The legally required advertisement marks the official beginning of the project, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and physical work is expected to begin around March of next year. Leaders expect construction will last 18 months, ending in the fall of 2026.

The Tennessee River bridge is safe to use, the city said, but it has developed wear and tear that workers cannot fix with occasional maintenance. Those issues could pose safety concerns in the near future if unaddressed. In addition, contractors will upgrade lighting and fix electrical issues on the span.

"The Walnut Street Bridge isn't just a crucial gathering place and connection between downtown and the North Shore, it is a powerful symbol of Chattanooga and a source of civic pride," Mayor Tim Kelly said in a news release. "Frankly, this work is overdue. For too long civic leaders have kicked the can down the road and let this shining jewel of our city fall into disrepair. It's time to start the process of renovating the bridge so that it can enrich our city for the next 30 years the way that it has for the previous 30."

Pedestrians will not be able to cross the river on the bridge during construction, but parts of it will remain open. Chattanooga officials said they will plan to provide access to the structure for events like the city's renowned Ironman triathlon and Seven Bridges marathon.

The tentative timeline for renovations to the Walnut Street Bridge includes:

  • Bid opening, review and analysis in July.
  • Bid selection and review by the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT), and the contract award by the Chattanooga City Council in August.
  • Execution of the contract in September.
  • Public notice and pre-construction work in October.
  • The start of construction and alternate pedestrian access to be opened in March 2025.
  • Completion of the renovation project in the fall of 2026.

"There will be access to portions of the bridge during construction so folks can enjoy it as a public space," Eric Holl, a city spokesperson, told the Times Free Press in a text. "You just won't be able to use it to get all the way across the river."

An Historically Significant River Bridge

Originally constructed in 1890, the Walnut Street Bridge is a 2,376-ft.-long structure connecting the city's downtown with Chattanooga's north shore of the river. The bridge's main spans are pin-connected Pennsylvania truss spans. It is regarded as being historically significant due to its length and structural design.

Opened with great fanfare in February 1891, the bridge was closed to automobile traffic in 1978 and once marked for demolition before repairs and structural modifications were made to convert it into a pedestrian walkway across the Tennessee River in 1993.

It is primarily constructed from steel, which can corrode when exposed to moisture and oxygen. Over time, this can weaken structural integrity. The bridge's wooden deck also is vulnerable to warping, cracking and rot.

The Walnut Street Bridge is the middle of three river crossings in downtown Chattanooga — just upriver from the Market Street Bridge and downriver from the Veterans Memorial structure — each of which will see modifications.

City officials plan to add protected lanes to the Veterans Memorial and Market Street bridges during the Walnut Street Bridge construction to accommodate more pedestrians and bicyclists, the Times Free Press reported.

Because Market Street is a state road, the additional lanes on its river bridge must receive approval from the TDOT, which is pending. Adding lanes on the Veterans Memorial Bridge will not require the transportation agency's approval.

In speaking with the newspaper, Holl said current plans call for closing one lane on each bridge to cars and trucks.

On the Veterans Bridge, the third lane will be closed on the southbound side, which becomes an offramp as motorists approach downtown. Changes to Market Street still require review and approval from TDOT, but shutting down one of the lanes that runs along the sidewalk is likely, he explained.

"Obviously pedestrians and cyclists can already use the sidewalk on the Market Street Bridge, but we know it's close quarters with traffic, which makes some folks uncomfortable," Holl noted. "And we also know we'll have increased demand with [the Walnut Street Bridge] no longer being an option to get across the river."

Chattanooga will fund the renovations with a combination of federal dollars and hotel-motel taxes, which the city collects on hotel stays. According to Holl, the city has secured $18 million from the federal government and has already set aside $12 million in hotel-motel funds from previous years.

Additionally, Chattanooga will set aside another $6 million in hotel-motel tax money between now and the 2029 fiscal year. Officials are also reserving $500,000 in this year's capital budget to add the alternate pedestrian routes.

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