South Has High Hopes for Next Highway Bill

Fri June 17, 2005 - Southeast Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) Southern states are preparing to grovel over gravel once again, but this time they’ll be doing so as allies, not competitors.

With Congress poised to devote approximately $300 million as early as this summer for highway construction and upkeep, the region’s political leaders are determined to finally put their territory on the road to equity.

Georgia lawmakers have been floating specific routes for interstate highways, just months after unveiling an election-year proposal for two new ones that would dissect the region. While concrete wouldn’t be poured for years, even under the most ambitious schedule, the aggressive lobbying effort signals that the South’s concerns won’t be silenced — particularly with highways near the top of the congressional agenda.

When the interstate highway system was conceived in the 1950s, the South’s small population didn’t justify the kind of highway grid now enjoyed by the West Coast and Northeast. But the last few decades have seen a dramatic shift, and lawmakers insist it’s time for the roads to follow the people south.

“Our population is just going crazy,” said Rep. Charlie Norwood, a Republican who represents northeast Georgia. “What we’re trying to do is say, ’OK, so many people are moving South, maybe we need to take this opportunity to begin to do something about it.’”

The next highway bill — which headed for negotiations between the House and Senate early this month — won’t do much. But if things take shape as Norwood and others desire, the one after that certainly could.

Tucked in the Senate’s version of the latest renewal is a request by Georgia Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson that would study the feasibility of the two new interstates. Interstate 3 would stretch from Knoxville, TN, down the Georgia-South Carolina line to Savannah, GA. I-14 would start in Augusta, GA, cutting west through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

“I want them done right,” Chambliss said of the studies. “We want them to be very thorough, very detailed in putting the numbers that will show not just the impact but why we need to connect the areas we’re proposing to connect here.”

Georgia has always been the gateway to tourist-rich Florida, with two major interstate highways, I-75 and I-95, leading the way.

Atlanta, the largest city in the Deep South, has major highways intersecting it from all directions. However, there are practically no convenient routes from eastern Georgia to Alabama or Mississippi that don’t cut through Atlanta, even from the southern part of the state.

“Georgia is blessed with a lot of north-south interstate routes, but unfortunately when it comes to east and west, we are not,” said David Studstill, chief engineer for the Georgia Department of Transportation. “These are two badly needed projects.”

Although there is some bickering even among Southern politicians concerning the specifics, the near-universal support for the basic concept is unique. Under past highway bills, there was far more competition between states like Alabama (which gets more money for highways than it pays in taxes) and Georgia (which gets less).

“If we could join forces on any regional projects in the South, it makes for good economic, political sense,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-AL, a member of the panel that directs transportation spending. “There’s strength in numbers.”

Each state gets something out of the plan.

Georgia finally gets an east-west interstate connecting three of its largest cities — Augusta, Macon and Columbus, diverting some Atlanta traffic and providing access to rural areas of the state. Likewise, Mississippi would get a long-sought highway crossing its state east-west.

Alabama would finally get a major road connecting its capital of Montgomery with the Mississippi border, cutting through the Black Belt — some of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation.

Communities in Tennessee and South Carolina would get a more direct north-south route to Florida and the Atlantic Coast. And the rest of the South would benefit from a more extensive road grid.

In the latest plans, I-3 would cut through the Tennessee cities of Knoxville and Maryville and the Georgia cities of Hiawassee, Toccoa, Hartwell, Elberton, Lincolnton, Augusta, Waynesboro, Sylvania and Savannah.

I-14 would include the Georgia cities of Augusta, Wrens, Sandersville, Macon and Columbus, the Alabama cities of Phenix City, Tuskegee, Montgomery and Grove Hill, and the Mississippi cities of Waynesboro, Laurel and Natchez.

Norwood said federal highway officials might suggest moving some of the routes as much as 10 mi. from the cities, but the idea is to make sure all of them are close enough to the roads. Some of the paths — including north of Savannah — may simply involve upgrading existing roads to interstate status.

Last month, Congress bought itself more time on the highway bill by agreeing to an extension of the 1998-2003 law that provided $218 billion for highway, public transit and safety programs. Senators are seeking far more money under the new version — $295 billion. President Bush has signaled he’ll veto any version more expensive than the $284 billion sought by the House.

Should there be another snag, Chambliss has signaled he’ll try to make the Southern highway study part of another bill moving through Congress this year.