Talks resume on new interstate linking Augusta-Knoxville

The Federal Highway Administration is studying a possible new interstate that would connect Savannah and Augusta to Knoxville, Tenn., despite opposition from groups that say the project could destroy pristine lands.

Government spokesman Doug Hecox told the Chattanooga Times Free Press the study of the project, which would be called Interstate 3, started in June, but there's no timeline for the completion.

The administration will use the study as a "resource that would inform discussion," he said.

But, Hecox said, that doesn't necessarily mean the interstate is going to be built. The study will look at routes, costs and impacts on tourism, industry and the environment.

"Its primary function is to determine if a project is feasible," he said.

Executive Director of the Stop I-3 Coalition, Jim Grode, said the interstate would devastate the environment and kill downtown areas as business shifts toward exit ramps.

"This route really serves no legitimate transportation needs," Grode said. "These routes are not going to be quicker or faster."

The proposed interstate stems from legislation introduced in 2004 by then-U.S. Rep. Max Burns, who represented an area of Georgia including Augusta, Savannah and Milledgeville.

Burns legislation sought to connect the two biggest cities in his district — Savannah and Augusta — with a route that would extend into northern Georgia and Tennessee. The route number was chosen to honor the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division's involvement in the Iraq war. The unit is based at Fort Stewart near Savannah.

The highway would connect Savannah, Augusta and Knoxville using existing corridors when possible. Based on that, the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition has mapped out potential routes showing five paths for the superhighway, which would run north of Interstate 85.

The westernmost route runs through Toccoa and Clarkesville before overlapping U.S. Highway 76 to Chatsworth. The route then veers north on U.S. Highway 411 into Tennessee, linking with Interstate 75 at Cleveland.

Eastern routes show I-3 possibly running north along U.S. 441 or state routes 11, 28 and 107 near Walhalla, Ga., before crossing into North Carolina and skirting the west side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Hecox said the study would only show options for the route. If the project moves forward, the states involved would make the final choice, he said.

There is no time frame on the study, but Hecox said he hopes the results would be in by the end of 2011.

Erik Brinke, chairman of the Blairsville-Union County Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Cherokee County, N.C., Economic Development Commission, said the area needs an interstate, but he's unsure if I-3's north-south route is the solution.

The area really needs an east-west interstate linking Chattanooga; Asheville, N.C.; and all the communities in between, Brinke said. Officials in Tennessee and North Carolina have discussed the route — the so-called Corridor K — for decades.

"Folks in this area are generally opposed to the I-3 corridor," Brinke said. "I just don't have a comfort level that Interstate 3 would accomplish (what another route would), although I admit any interstate through our area would help economically."

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