If Augusta area economic developers were to make a list of the 10 worst things that could happen to our region, at or very near the top would be if Fall Line Freeway construction, already 55 percent completed, were abandoned.
As disheartening as it is, the decades-long dream of building a 215-mile stretch of road across rural middle Georgia to connect Augusta to Columbus and Macon is turning into a nightmare.
As The Chronicle reported Sunday, if a federal park and historical site don't stop construction, more stringent, clean air standards could.
At the very best, these complications have pushed Fall Line completion back yet another year, to 2006. But that's to take an optimistic view, and in recent years there's been very little to be optimistic about -- given that Fall Line's first target date for completion was to be next year.
The worst case scenario -- quitting the project -- is gaining credence on two counts.
First, there appears to be no efficient way to get around 20,700 acres of a federally-protected park and an Indian historic site outside Macon. If the freeway must skirt all that land, it will no longer be an efficient connector to Augusta.
Second, if there's a way out of that conundrum, then stricter clean air standards could cripple further road building, and especially highway construction funds for both Macon and Augusta, until the two cities comply with the stiffer standards.
What we are looking at is a looming economic blow to Au-gusta as well as the rest of middle Georgia. Without improved transpor-tation we'll never be able to compete effectively with other Sunbelt states. Manufacturers just won't locate where there aren't good connectors.
The most dismaying fact is, Fall Line should be nearly completed. It's not, because environmental and historical conservation rules keep being re-written, slowing the project and now possibly ruining it.
Talk about government waste! It boggles the mind to realize that hundreds of millions of state, federal and local taxpayers' dollars already invested would be down the drain.
We have no "magic bullet" solution to the freeway's problems. That's a job for elected officials -- federal, state and local. They must come together to find a way to get the project back on track. Gov. Roy Barnes, who says his administration is committed to developing rural Georgia's economy, must take the lead to start the ball rolling.