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July 25, 2016 8:43 AM, EDT

Plans for Tennessee River Toll Bridge Dashed Because of Cost

The long-studied idea for a toll bridge across the Tennessee River from Soddy-Daisy to Harrison and Interstate 75 has been killed by cost.

Tennessee Transportation Commissioner John Schroer came to Hamilton County on July 20 and broke the news to local political leaders.

Just the bridge would cost in the neighborhood of $190 million, Schroer told members of the Tennessee Bridge Committee, who had worked on the project since 2007.

The approaches — the connections between the Soddy-Daisy end and the Harrison/I-75 side — would run as high as $300 million more, he said.

And since 1,500 motorists and truckers told TDOT they would love to have a new, time-saving bridge but wouldn't pony up much more than $4 for a toll ticket, the numbers didn't work out.

State Rep. Mike Carter, who sits on the bridge committee, compared the $500 million estimated for the bridge and approaches with the $125 million rebuild of U.S. Highway 27 through downtown, which is TDOT's most expensive project ever.

"It was just staggering. I had no idea we'd be talking about that kind of money," Carter said. "It just doesn't work under any circumstance."

"It wasn't the news that we wanted, but this was good, hard data to look at," added County Mayor Jim Coppinger.

Nevertheless, Commissioner Randy Fairbanks, whose district includes much of the area that would have been affected, said, "To say I was disappointed would be an understatement."

He added, "It'd be huge for our area, and people have been talking about it for a number of years. But there's only so much people feel they can afford to pay for convenience, and the state said we were short on that."

Folks in the northern end of Hamilton County, along with Sequatchie Valley residents who commute to jobs in Hamilton County and elsewhere, had long dreamed of a new bridge that would give them a quicker connection to I-75 than either driving south to cross the Chickamauga Dam or north to the Highway 60 bridge connecting Rhea and Meigs counties.

That dream took on solidity when state lawmakers in 2007 passed a law calling for a study of a toll bridge. A feasibility study looked at possible routes. The final step was to figure out how much people would be willing to pay in tolls that would cover construction.

Consultants CDM Smith and ETC Institute developed and administered surveys to 1,341 households in Hamilton and Bradley counties, and to 205 truckers through the Tennessee Trucking Association.

The question: How much would you pay to save travel time?

Answer: Not that much.

On average, motorists were willing to pay $1.66 to save 15 minutes' travel time, and $4.07 to save 75 minutes.

Truckers said they would pay $2.53 to save 15 minutes and $3.74 for 75 minutes.

The bottom line, Schroer told the bridge committee members, the funding would come up about $80 million short. That's just for the bridge; it doesn't count the equally costly approaches.

The news didn't surprise Soddy-Daisy City Manager Janice Cagle.

"To be perfectly honest, I never thought I would see this bridge in my lifetime," she said. As for the impact on Soddy-Daisy residents, Cagle doesn't see any. Folks have never had a bridge, so there's nothing to miss, she said. They'll just keep taking the long way around.

"People are just not willing to pay $5 to save 40 minutes' time," Cagle said.

Coppinger said he was a bit disappointed the surveys were given only to Hamilton and Bradley County residents, not people in the Sequatchie Valley.

"Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties are part of our workforce, and I've always felt those people would benefit as well," he said.

County Commissioner Chester Bankston, whose district includes southern and eastern areas in Hamilton County that would have benefited from a new bridge, said the same.

Still, he added, "It is what it is. If people don't want it, they don't want it."

Carter, though, isn't ready to give up. Getting another way across the river would offer opportunities for economic growth and tax savings by reducing duplicate spending by local governments, he said.

"Maybe somebody needs to look at a commercial ferry — is it feasible?" he said. "We certainly need a way to get across the river there. Just because that didn't go through doesn't mean we're going to stop."