Speak Your Piece: Death of a Highway

[imgbelt img=norwood.jpeg]A Georgia congressman’s dream of a “3rd Infantry Division Highway” — or Interstate 3 — from Savannah, Ga., to Knoxville, Tenn. dies after 7 years.


[imgcontainer left] [img:smokeymountainsTNChimney-topsbybrianstansberry.jpeg] [source]Brian Stansberry

In 2005, a Georgia congressman inserted an earmark in the federal transportation bill that started planning on a new highway that would have come close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The ill-conceived highway has finally died.

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.

[imgcontainer left] [img:norwood.jpeg] 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.