Originally created 08/15/98

Roadwork ahead



The trip to Savannah is a real drag.

Just ask daytrippers or Georgia Southern students or -- especially -- truck drivers who make the three-hour drive hauling tons of equipment or material to the Savannah port.

"When you pull that weight, it's wear and tear," said Danny Dunford, a Bennett International Corp. driver who has hauled John Deere equipment from Grovetown to Savannah.

"You've got a lot of little small towns that you have to slow down for. There are some stretches that are 50 or 55 mph, but others that are only 40 or 35 mph."

A four-lane highway would definitely help.

It's five years away.

That's how long officials think it will take to complete the Savannah River Parkway, perhaps the most eagerly anticipated road in Augusta.

With sections stretching from Savannah and bypasses at several small towns completed, the 157-mile project is about 40 percent complete, according to estimates from the Department of Transportation.

Currently, construction is ongoing on a 9-mile stretch between Shawnee and Springfield in Effingham County.

Most of the planned roadway in the Augusta area is still in the pre-construction stage, awaiting environmental approval, design or right-of-way acquisition.

"The biggest holdup is that we have to get permits from the engineers through Fish and Game," said Jimmy Lester, who represents the 10th Congressional District on the state Board of Transportation. "There's a lot of marshland between here and Savannah. The leg from Augusta to Waynesboro is being held up because of the Briar Creek Basin. It's been over a year and we haven't gotten a permit yet.

"The Savannah River Parkway, I'd say, will be finished by 2002 or 2003."

Part of the Governor's Road Improvement Program approved in 1989, the Savannah River Parkway and the Fall Line Freeway -- a similar highway that will connect Augusta, Macon and Columbus -- are considered priorities, officials said.

Both were begun near Savannah and Macon and are slowly working their way inward, toward Augusta.

The Fall Line Freeway, a 215-mile stretch of road that could be completed in 2005, is about 48 percent finished or under construction. Most notably, more than 27 miles near and through Macon has been finished.

Officials estimate both projects will take more than $506 million to finish. Estimates to complete all 10 of the current GRIP projects stand at almost $2.5 billion.

"It's going to be forever unless we find a better way to pay as we go," said C.J. Broome of Waycross, who was chairman of the Lower Coastal Development Council when its 11 southeast Georgia counties voted four-lane highways their No. 1 transportation priority.

It's costing $135 million a year to pay off bonds for construction of Corridor Z, a four-lane highway through south Georgia that was completed even before the GRIP project was approved, Mr. Broome said.

Since the new roads package was approved in 1989, the legislature has had to find money in the budget each year for GRIP construction, keeping the pace of the projects slow.

But the economic impact of the four-lane highways -- six of which will come through Waycross and Ware County -- will be worth it in the end, Mr. Broome added.

In a state where all major roads still lead to Atlanta, legislators approved the GRIP project at the height of the "two Georgias" conflict, hoping to spread economic development outside of Atlanta's Interstate system to poor rural counties that were having trouble attracting industry because of their inadequate road systems.

"There's no question in my mind that U.S. 82 has been one heck of a stimulus for our economic development in the southern part of the state," Mr. Broome said. "We believe our total potential for growth lies in that system being completed as rapidly as possible."

A 1996 study by the Transportation Department indicated that Georgia counties affected by road-widening projects credited four-lane highways with creating nearly 10,000 new jobs by bringing in new businesses.

About 4,400 of those jobs rode in on highways built as part of the GRIP project, the study said.

In addition, counties blamed the lack of the new roads for the loss of potential business opportunities that would have created an additional 5,000 jobs.

"Transportation is one of the most important factors that companies look at when they consider an area," said Kevin Shea, senior vice president of the Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce. "You've got to be able to get products in and out, so transportation is critical."