No doubt, like other fiscal conservatives, we'll find plenty of pork and waste to criticize in the humongous $286.4 billion highway and transit funding bill that Congress is sending to President Bush, but that doesn't gainsay the fact there's much in the measure that is very good news for the state, particularly the Augusta area.
For instance, there's $13.4 million in Richmond and Columbia County road widening projects that will be a big help in relieving traffic congestion problems along Washington Road.
These are short-term issues to address, but the transportation bill also provides a whopping $1.32 million for a much larger and ambitious long term project - feasibility studies for the proposed Interstate 3 and Interstate 14 highways. The two Deep South interstates, with Augusta as the primary hub, would be a huge economic boon for the region.
The projects, originally urged by former U.S. Rep. Max Burns, R-Ga., were continued by U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., who requested $400,000 for the studies - but, thanks to the efforts of U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., that figure was more than tripled in the Senate.
The first interstate, I-3, would link Savannah, Augusta, northeast Georgia, western North Carolina and Knoxville, Tenn., thus making Augusta a major intersection.
The second interstate, I-14, tieing Augusta, Macon and Columbus to Montgomery, Ala., and Natchez, Miss., would create alternative commerce corridors that would finally bring significant economic development to the so-called Black Belt, historically one of the most economically depressed areas of the South.
The new interstate projects won't happen overnight, of course. It will take billions of dollars, and probably more than a decade to build, but the feasibility studies are the first important steps in the highway journeys of thousands of miles.
When the interstates were built back in the 1950s, Atlanta raked in most of the federal highway funds to develop its freeways that have major intersections from all directions. Meanwhile, Augusta and other Georgia metro centers were, with the exception of Interstate 20, stuck with the road systems they had at that time.
"Georgia is blessed with a lot of north-south interstate routes, but ... when it comes to east and west, we are not," says the Georgia Department of Transportation's chief engineer, David Studstill. "These are two badly needed projects."
That's especially true these days with Atlanta's freeway system so clogged that the capital's often at a virtual standstill. Two new interstates with Augusta as the hub would relieve that congestion.
More importantly, they'd open up huge new economic opportunities, not only for the region and state, but the entire South.
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