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Foes say highway proposal still alive
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Highway meeting

What: The Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club and WaysSouth are holding a public meeting on the 3rd Infantry Division Highway Corridor between Savannah and Knoxville, Tenn.
When: 7-9 p.m. Wednesday
Where: United Community Bank, 206 Morrison Moore Parkway, Dahlonega
For more information: www.wayssouth.org/campaigns/stop-i-3/resources

Two activist groups want area residents to know that a major highway connecting Savannah and Knoxville, Tenn., and crisscrossing North Georgia is still being considered by the federal government.

The Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Stop I-3 Coalition (now renamed WaysSouth) have scheduled a public hearing from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the United Community Bank building on Morrison Moore Parkway in Dahlonega.

"The meeting is not so much to push a particular point of view on the road but to inform people that this thing is still in the works, that the study is going forward and they're going to be making some recommendations," said Larry Winslett, conservation vice chairman for the state's Sierra Club.

"A lot of people thought this was a dead issue."

Jim Grode, executive director of WaysSouth, said, "One of our goals is to raise awareness about this project in an area that hasn't thought that there's much of a threat (of the road happening)."

In 2005, as part of the project's history, the late U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Augusta, sponsored legislation to study the creation of a proposed Interstate 3, which would run from Savannah to Knoxville and potentially cut through the mountains of Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.

Congress appropriated $1.32 million to conduct a feasibility study on the road's construction.

News of the proposal triggered outrage throughout the Southern Appalachians. Activists in Rabun County formed the Stop I-3 Coalition, which claimed in 2007 it had support from nearly 40 nonprofit groups and local governments.

The Federal Highway Administration, which held web-based information sessions last week on the project, has dubbed the proposed road the 3rd Infantry Division Highway Corridor.

"At the direction of Congress, we are only studying the steps to complete and costs to build a highway corridor connecting (the two cities)," said Doug Hecox, spokesman for the department in Washington.

"The study looks at various alignments and design levels, and may help state and local leaders better understand the scope of such an ambitious project."

Still, it's enough to make residents nervous.

"There are some communities that have a major highway connecting them," said Winslett, a Dahlonega resident.

"... But if you look at communities where the interstate sort of bypasses them, they tend to really struggle and some of them die."

He sees the "preferred route" crosses Interstate 85 around Commerce and then "a new section would have to built to connect that with the end of (Ga.) 52 just west of Dahlonega."

"So, Hall and Lumpkin counties could see some pretty serious impacts from new road construction, if this ever takes place."

The Sierra Club is particularly concerned with such a road's impact on the environment, particularly the Chattahoochee National Forest in North Georgia and effects on wildlife.

A particular worry is the impact on "all of the watersheds, increasing pollution in streams, as well as air quality," Winslett said. "All of those things that would be associated with increasing traffic in North Georgia would be the Sierra Club's major concerns."

Grode said he believes the road "would really not save a whole lot of time and, in terms of mileage, would be potentially longer than existing routes.

"And so, it doesn't really serve any real transportation need. We don't think it serves any good economic development purpose, but it would be phenomenally expensive."

Winslett said "he's skeptical the money is even there to build this thing, but as one local politician told me, ‘You think that's the case, but all it takes is one guy in Washington with the right pull to attach it to something ... and next thing you know, it's going.'"

He also said he wonders if the road "is a smart way to spend our taxpayer money."

"The country is just short of a depression, basically," he said. "You could argue that infrastructure projects are good for the economy, but even if that is the case, is this the right one?

"Would the money be better spent on bridges and existing roadways?"

There may be some answers to such questions soon.

The federal study is being completed "and we expect to receive it in the next several weeks," Hecox said.

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