Opposition lines road to proposed interstates
Tom Baxter - Staff
Monday, August 22, 2005
Robbinsville, N.C. --- This far-western corner of North Carolina is home to an assortment of folks who have only a few things in common. One of them is a deepening opposition to an interstate highway project that has been proposed as a fix for Atlanta's traffic problems and a boon to rural development.
"This is a small area dedicated mostly to naturalists and motorcyclists. The naturalists stay off the roads, and the motorcyclists stay out of the woods," said Ben Steinberg, who handles public relations for the Deal's Gap Motorcycle Court.
It's one of several businesses along U.S. 129 that cater to the bikers who have been coming here from around the world since the early 1930s to ride the Tail of the Dragon, a tortuously twisted 11-mile stretch of the road that skirts the southwest corner of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
U.S. 129 is in one of the proposed paths of I-3, which would connect Savannah with Knoxville. Congress earlier this month appropriated $1.2 million in the federal highway bill to study the feasibility of building I-3 and a companion road, I-14, which would run from Savannah to Natchez, Miss.
Steinberg opposes I-3, dismayed at the thought of what he calls "the equivalent of Mecca" for bikers being four-laned and straightened.
A couple of miles away, as the crow flies, horticulturist Robin Suggs raises black cohosh, boneset, false unicorn root and a couple of dozen other native plants on a 32-acre farm --- medicinal herbs that are difficult to grow but thrive here. He also worries that the interstate and the development that would come with it could play havoc in an area where the rugged topography and weather have helped create one of the most biodiverse spots on the continent.
"At what cost does this type of progress come, and is it really progress?" Suggs asked.
Backers: Roads biofriendly
But John Stone, spokesman for Rep. Charles Norwood (R-Ga.), argues that the roads would actually help the environment. On a typical summer day, he said, the air quality in the Smokies is already worse than Atlanta's, in part because winds carry the fumes of Atlanta's traffic jams northward to the mountains.
He and other highway supporters contend that building the highways would untangle the interstate spider's web, which has Atlanta at its center. It would make it feasible for the first time to drive via interstate highway from Augusta to Savannah, or Chicago to Florida, without negotiating the Atlanta maze.
"All the traffic coming through our state is flushed through [I-] 285 every day at rush hour," Stone said.
So far, there's no formal research to back the supporters' claims about the impact the interstates could have on metro Atlanta. That's one of the issues the feasibility study is supposed to address. But for many of those in the mountains I-3 would cross, no benefit to Atlanta justifies an interstate in their back yard.
"A lot of us who live up here are just appalled anybody would think about using the mountains to solve Atlanta's traffic problems," said John Clarke, a carpenter in Hayesville, N.C., who chairs the Clay/Cherokee County chapter of the Stop I-3 Coalition.
Supporters of the project have suggested alternate routes through the mountains, but there are only a few places where an interstate could be built without great cost, and opposition in North Georgia and North Carolina is spreading rapidly under the coalition's banner.
In the speed with which it has used the Internet to organize opponents over a large area, the Stop I-3 Coalition bears more than a passing resemblance to the movement which arose against the proposed Northern Arc --- a metro Atlanta beltline highway that would have connected Cartersville to Lawrenceville --- and succeeded in bringing that project to a halt in 2004.
Perdue mum on stance
The Georgia Legislature this year appropriated $100,000 for the Interstate Highway Development Association, headed by former Rep. Max Burns' staffer Allen Muldrew, to promote the proposal. But Gov. Sonny Perdue said last week he isn't taking sides until the study has been done.
The Habersham, Rabun and White County commissions have passed resolutions opposing I-3, and at a public meeting earlier this month, Norwood, Stone's boss, appeared to be shifting on the issue, saying he would follow the wishes of the majority in his district.
Former Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, one of the original co-sponsors of the proposal along with Burns, said last week it was his understanding that the interstate proposal was advanced largely as a means to get a much more limited interstate between Savannah and Augusta.
"I will be long dead and gone before I-3 ever gets to Toccoa, if it even does," Miller said, referring to a North Georgia town on the proposed route.
Stone said last week the feasibility study might determine that I-3 doesn't need to go all the way to Knoxville. Other ideas include having it connect with I-85 near Lake Hartwell. The plan to run I-14 slightly south of Macon and Columbus also could be changed to put the road slightly north of those cities, he said.
"From the get-go, we've said it's going to be fairly easy to run I-14 where it's going, and it's not going to be hard to run I-3 from Savannah up through Augusta. The really hard part is what to do with it up in the mountains," Stone said.
Burns, a Republican who lost his west Georgia congressional seat last year to Democrat John Barrow, said the original idea for the two interstates sprang from a study of Black Belt poverty commissioned by Miller and conducted by the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute. I-14 would follow a path across the Black Belt through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
No opposition to I-14
No organized opposition to the proposed I-14 has emerged so far, although some environmentalists have raised questions about the route through one of Georgia's three surviving bear habitats in the Ocmulgee River area.
Besides alleviating Atlanta's traffic, Burns maintains the interstates would bring economic benefits to rural areas that have lagged behind Atlanta and other thriving Southern cities. Some businesses that would benefit from more trucking routes, including Atlanta-based Home Depot and Knoxville-based Goody's Family Clothing, have endorsed the interstate proposal.
"You come back to the fundamental fact that most of the development takes place along the interstate corridors," said Burns, who now works in Washington for Thelen, Reid & Priest, a national law firm specializing in government infrastructure contracts and construction projects.
Barrow has endorsed his former opponent's proposal, but Burns, who is planning another bid for Congress, has remained close to the effort, monitoring its progress through his Republican colleague, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, who sits on the House Transportation Committee. Burns says it's "very premature" for local governments to be passing resolutions before a study is done to judge the project's merits. But opponents already have a busy schedule of public meetings planned in Georgia and North Carolina, and another road battle seems well under way.