WASHINGTON (AP) Where in the world is Rome?
No, it’s not the Italian version Georgians are struggling to find. It’s the one just 70 mi. away from Atlanta.
In a new highway bill, Congress is paying $22 million to finally simplify the confusing, illogical and sometimes even dangerous route commuters take from the largest city in the northwest corner of Georgia to Interstate 75, which runs from Atlanta to Chattanooga, TN.
“I’ve been living in Rome since 1969, and we’ve been talking about this at least since 1969,” said city manager John Bennett. “Just psychologically, it’s not good that we have to go through so many jogs to get here.”
No map does justice to how wacky this commute really is. What should be an easy drive from Rome to Atlanta involves complicated back routes, including a journey on U.S. Highway 411 that would appear to head due east on a collision course with I-75, only to cut south and parallel it instead. Know the back way, or you’re doomed to get lost.
The solution is pretty simple, say those who do know the back way. Just build a six-mile highway connecting 411 and the interstate.
Sure, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but why on earth has it taken nearly four decades to start building a 6-mi. road to get there? Theories abound, but nobody seems to have a definitive answer.
Some said the project was stalled when a wealthy landowner went to court more than a decade ago, arguing the proposed route of the connector would split his family’s estate. If there was much of a dispute between the family and highway officials, that’s long been resolved.
Many in Rome contend Bartow County residents didn’t want a path to a new Atlanta bedroom community running through their area. Residents of the county responded it was Rome that stalled things, desiring the niche of a relatively large city near Atlanta without the stigma of suburban life.
Bob Ledbetter Sr., whose father once owned a highway contracting business that built many of the roads now cursed by commuters, said he figures it’s the skyrocketing costs of concrete and Georgia’s puny share of gas tax dollars.
“You don’t get much bang for your buck anymore,” Ledbetter said.
Conspiracy theories aside, Mohamed Arafa, northwest spokesman of the Georgia Department of Transportation, said the connector has always been near the top of the department’s priority list. If traffic wasn’t enough of a reason, safety is, Arafa said.
“When you have narrow lanes on the ramps — a type of ramp that is not designed for the heavy truck traffic it’s carrying right now, you have a higher probability of accidents,” he said.
Even if the public has trouble finding Rome, business hasn’t. Numerous companies have located there, including Pirelli Tire, which recently moved its North American headquarters from Hartford, CT, to Rome.
“Atlanta is growing so fast, I would expect within 10 years it can reach the area around Rome,” said Guy Mannino, the company’s president and CEO. “You need a fast connection to the city. Right now there isn’t any.”
Those also are the sentiments of Steve Brewster, owner of Bagby Transfer, a moving and storage company based in Rome. Some dispatchers who have difficulty finding Rome will divert business to Atlanta or Chattanooga instead, he said.
“We spend a good part of our day trying to guide trucks in, telling them how to get to Rome,” Brewster said. “For a city our size, it’s amazing it’s taken this long to get a direct route.”
The money in the highway bill, secured by Georgia’s U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson and Rep. Phil Gingrey, should immediately be put to use.
“We won’t have to wait much longer,” Gingrey said.
Arafa estimates construction will take two to three years, although before concrete is poured, the state must compensate landowners for lost property and complete an environmental study.
Within a few years, a new connector should alleviate one of the biggest blemishes in the state’s efforts to control traffic, not just in Rome but elsewhere north of Atlanta.
“As we always say down here, when I-75 falls sick, all the roads around it run a fever,” Arafa said. “It impacts everything.”
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