Speak Your Piece: Death of a Highway

A Georgia congressman’s dream of a "3rd Infantry Division Highway" — or Interstate 3 — from Savannah, Ga., to Knoxville, Tenn. dies after 7 years.

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Small mountain communities like Murphy, North Carolina, are going to remain rural longer now that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA),  in an official report to Congress, has laid to rest the idea of a 3rd Infantry Division Highway.

The highway was likely the work of the late Rep. Charlie Norwood, a Georgia Republican, who appeared to have planted an earmark into President George W. Bush’s 2005 transportation spending law. The earmark required a study of a new highway from Savannah, Ga., to Knoxville, Tenn.

Earmarks can be pernicious. This one threatened to build a highway through one of the most beautiful areas of the rural South, and that possibility remained until just recently, years after Norwood’s death.

Norwood was an arch-conservative lawmaker and an Augusta, Ga., dentist who died in 2007. He once voted to put nearly 40,000 troops on the Mexican border to block illegal immigrants seeking to enter the U.S., and he opposed the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, according to the Washington Post.

Norwood’s vision, “I-3,” would have been an oblique asphalt path taking a north-northwesterly route heading across the most densely red states in the Deep South region that’s now the core of the Republican Party. Norwood had sponsored a House bill to the same effect that never got out of committee. So he must have been the person who then achieved this earmark. (You never know, for they’re made in secret.)

Norwood’s highway grew during the just-completed study to an estimated $5 billion federal pork project (and heaven knows what the real cost would have been if this had entailed 21st Century mountain tunneling). Perhaps foreseeing that, Norwood moved to make his idea acceptable to conservatives by naming it for an Army division. It was to have been the “3rd Infantry Division Highway.”  

In addition, he appears to have sought to make this a fait accompli in U.S. taxpayers’ minds by designating it “Interstate 3.”  This occurred despite an earnest appeal on the FHWA web site asking citizens to not pre-name interstates.

Quarries, contractors, heavy-equipment operators, developers, realtors, innkeepers, restaurateurs, and retailers including service stations and convenience stores all stood to benefit richly from the new interstate.

Bill Kendall, the sole commissioner of rural Towns County, Ga., at the top of the state, is the only politician here in the Blue Ridge that I heard oppose “I-3.”   He’s a tall, laconic former coach and school superintendent.

The late Rep. Charlie Norwood of Georgia, who started planning for Interstate 3 with a 2005 earmark.
“I-3” would devastate our mountains,” Kendall said.

A Road Meets Many Roadblocks

During seven years of what appears to have been a perfunctory review by FHWA and an Expert Working Group, the proposal drove into many problems.  Not the least was the fact that along that oblique N/NW path from Dr. Norwood’s hometown sprawls the expanse of a large federal set-aside, namely the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 521,621 acres.

In a kind of mercy killing, the Federal Highway Administration reported to Congress Feb. 28: 

• “The I-3 project’s impacts within a national park, extreme mountainous terrain, or avoiding control points represent fatal flaws…”

• “The Southern Appalachians contain a dense mixture of small mountain communities, sensitive environmental resources, and federally managed lands…”

• “Members of the public and the Expert Working Group have repeatedly expressed concern there is no purpose for the 3rd Infantry Division highway corridor between Savannah, Augusta, and Knoxville. Limited support for it is built upon improved economic development and safety.”

The cost estimate for I-3 ultimately reached $4.845 billion. 

A Perfunctory Study, With Errors

As recently as 2011, the study was using a PowerPoint computer slide show locating U.S. 441 Newfound Gap Road adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, instead of bisecting it, which it does – as millions of visitors would have attested if only asked.

WaysSouth (formerly Stop I-3) of Tiger, Ga. was the only non-profit organization to be included in what was called the Expert Working Group.  Jim Grode was its employee.  It was he who helped his fellow experts become clear on the true path of U.S. 441— straight through the national park.

In addition, according to meeting minutes, Grode showed how two of four talked-about routes would have traversed 5,000-foot peaks.  

Planning for Interstate 3 was haphazard. A presentation about the project showed Highway 441 running outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — when in reality it bisects the park.
Four key agencies that would have been impacted were the National Park Service, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  None sent letters taking positions on I-3.

“The agencies participated in our study of the proposed highway corridor as members of the Expert Working Group,” Gabe Rousseau, acting director of FHWA’s Office of Human Environment, told me. 

Nor did the Highway Administration seem all that excited by I-3. The FHWA report to Congress on I-3 was posted just four days before the expiration on March 4 of the Congress’ last extension of funding for President Bush’s 2005 transportation spending law. That was the law that contained Rep. Norwood’s original earmark.

New Corridors Plotted Through the Rural South

For the record — after all, do highway projects ever really die? — four possible “I-3”corridors were studied, according to the Report to Congress. 

1. “Corridor A farthest west option, running along I-16 west out of Savannah, passing west of Augusta, passing east of Athens, GA and Gainesville, GA. A western option follows the western boundary of the National Forests to I-75 at Cleveland, TN; an eastern option crosses through the National Forests north of Dahlonega, GA to join I-75 at Sweetwater, TN. 

2. “Corridor B follows the Savannah River Parkway from Savannah, running west of the Georgia/South Carolina State line, and following existing roadways through the National Forests and along the western boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Knoxville. A bypass of SR 21 at Savannah was also considered for this corridor. 

3. “Corridor C follows the Savannah River Parkway from Savannah, following new and existing alignments through South Carolina from Augusta to west of Greenville, and crosses through the National Forests and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on existing alignments; and 

4. “Corridor D follows existing alignments from Savannah to Columbia, following I-26 and US 25 north and west to Knoxville.”

Benefits Imagined, from China to Ireland

I-3 had supporters besides Rep. Norwood. Trucking-company dispatchers joined road contractors in wanting a Knoxville-to-Savannah interstate.  Their long haulers headed to Eastern ports could avoid I-75 via Atlanta, where the truckers have to work their way around the often schedule-busting I-285 circumferential highway.  

Meanwhile, a $5.25 billion widening of the Panama Canal to accommodate bigger container ships and oil tankers is scheduled for completion in 2014. This will “put pressure on East Coast ports like Savannah, Ga., to deepen harbors and expand cargo-handling facilities,” according to the New York Times.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood vowed in November 2011 to convene a meeting with President Barack Obama to find $400 million to complete expansion of the port of Savannah.

Wikipedia reports:  “The growth in usage of the Panama Canal over the past few years has been almost entirely driven by increased U.S. imports from China passing through the canal to ports on the U.S. East and Gulf coasts.”

And events boosting or slowing road-building in the American South surely are followed closely at Belgard Castle in Dublin, Ireland. That’s the headquarters of the giant worldwide firm Cement Roadstone Holdings. 

Its subsidiary, Harrison Construction-APAC of Alcoa, Tenn., is beheading Shewbird Mountain in Clay County, N.C.  The firm’s Hayesville Quarry has multiple permit extensions from the state. 

There’s mountaintop removal for coal in the Cumberland range. Here in the Blue Ridge, not as well understood, the same irreversible re-shaping of mountains is done for road stone.

Tom Bennett of the Martins Creek community near Murphy, N.C., is a retired newsman. 

 

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