Lawmaker’s Plan Would Bring ’Highway Equity’ to South

Wed August 17, 2005 - Southeast Edition

TIGER, GA (AP) As the story here goes, a city boy in a Cadillac one day drove up to a gaggle of kids and asked incredulously how their families managed to scrape together a living in this remote mountain town.

The kids, as Rabun County native Lucy Bartlett tells it, responded with a smile: “Touristers and taters.”

Generations later, the potato crops have been replaced by textiles and poultry, but the tourists still come to the North Georgia mountains in droves, seeking flea markets and wineries in the valleys and breathtaking views atop the mountains.

Which is why it’s perplexing that Bartlett, whose family owns a winery attracting hundreds of visitors each year, is helping lead the charge against an interstate that could bring thousands more through northeast Georgia everyday.

“If we want them to come up here, we’ve got to keep it rural, got to keep it unique,” said Bartlett, as she sipped coffee from her airy porch at the base of Tiger Mountain, overlooking the land her family has owned for nearly a century.

Bartlett is but a small piece of a growing grassroots network opposed to the proposed Interstate 3, which promises to link Savannah, GA, to Knoxville, TN, blazing a yet unknown trail through the mountainous terrain of Georgia and North Carolina.

The movement started in earnest in May, when Congress approved a $400,000 interstate study that its sponsor, U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, of Evans, GA, said could link military bases in the corridor and help balance the South’s infrastructure with other regions of the country. He also proposed another interstate, I-14, which would stretch from Augusta through middle Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to the banks of the Mississippi River.

“We’re finally beginning the long journey towards highway equity for the Deep South,” Norwood recently wrote in a letter to his constituents in northwest Georgia.

Business interests, too, are keen on the proposal. The new highway could deter truck convoys away from traffic-choked Atlanta and connect businesses, such as Knoxville-based Goody’s Family Clothing, to Savannah’s bustling seaport. And it could give Knoxville’s 170,000 residents a more direct route to the beaches of Georgia and Florida.

Former U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, who backed the project before retiring this year, said northeast Georgians shouldn’t worry that a highway might soon be carved in their backyard. Plans to connect North Carolina and Tennessee, he said, are only a ploy to attract wider congressional support for a 122-mi. interstate highway linking Savannah and Augusta.

“That is some pie-in-the-sky idea by somebody who wants to build roads,” said Miller, whose home in Young Harris could be within miles of the I-3 route.

“Nothing like that is going to happen in my lifetime or yours,” he said. “The sun is going to stand still before it happens.”

Still, residents along the route said they would rather be safe than steamrolled, lining up considerable opposition for a project that must survive a gauntlet of studies and could take a decade to begin.

When Towns County, GA, held a public information meeting on the interstate in May, approximately 600 people packed the building, many of them adamantly opposing construction. “I haven’t talked to a single person that’s in favor of it,” said Eston Melton Jr., a county commissioner in Rabun County, which includes Tiger Mountain. Melton stood along with 170 residents and other county commissioners at a July 9 meeting to oppose the project.

Although the U.S. Department of Transportation has yet to determine the highway’s path, Ruban County boasts one of the lowest valleys in north Georgia and its main road, U.S. 441, is being expanded to four lanes — attractive for a highway expected to piggyback onto existing roadways.

The most adamant opponents say the only way to put the brakes on the project is to convince lawmakers not to write-off the mountain vote.

“Unless we ratchet this up to a national issue, we’re going to see a highway run through our mountains. And I’m not going to lose this one,” said Buzz Williams, director of the Chattooga Conservancy, which works to protect the watershed’s forests.

Williams vows that any protests will be nonviolent, unlike the vicious opposition in the Midwest over plans to extend Interstate 69 south from Indianapolis to Evansville. In June, Indiana police arrested 24 people protesting the expansion. State investigators said vandals recently tried to set afire an interstate project office.

Foes there have claimed the project is too costly, and echoing concerns of I-3 opponents, could harm the environment.

Yet anti-highway activists in Georgia also claim a unique fear that the new route could be a convenient artery for hazardous waste transport between nuclear sites in Augusta and Knoxville. And they said the region’s nature-based tourism outweighs any economic development that could sprout alongside the road.

“An interstate is not going to enhance our attractiveness to tourists,” Melton said. “Not only do we not need it, we don’t want it.”