May 23, 2011 – Never heard of the I-3 Highway? Well, it’s time to catch up, according to detractors.
The 3rd Infantry Division Highway study – dubbed the I-3 Highway - is a congressionally mandated study of a proposed highway that would connect the cities of Savannah, Augusta and Knoxville, TN (see map) which is due to be released in June.
It’s actually just one of two major new highways being studied that may be built in Georgia. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is conducting two multi-state corridor studies as directed by Section 1927 of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU).
The I-3 highway would link Savannah, Augusta and Knoxville, referred to in the statute as the 3rd Infantry Division Highway. The second highway would link Augusta, Macon, Columbus, Montgomery and Natchez, MS. It is referred to in the statute as the 14th Amendment Highway, and that study is also underway and due in June.
For the I-3 highway, ICF International has been conducting the study since last fall with most of the work subcontracted to Wilbur Smith & Associates, a civil engineering firm with a long history of projects for the 3rd ID and Ft. Stewart.
The purpose of the study is to present a range of potential options for the 3rd Infantry Division Highway though FHWA states that no particular design, including Interstate design, will be recommended. In addition, FHWA will not be recommending whether or not to build the highway. And no federal funding has been committed or identified to continue studying the project should it be commended.
There has also been no funding to support planning, environmental review or construction design costs, the long-range planning needs to make the highway a reality. “These activities must be initiated at the state or regional level,” according to an April 2011 update report published by FHWA.
Two online “public updates” were held last week on May 17 and 18 – the first since the study was funded – to fulfill the federal requirement for public input hearings. Questions could be submitted in advance which were then answered by John Mettile of ICF International, who led the call. Four public meetings were called for in the original bid that was awarded.
Christopher Cashman, communications director for Congressman John Barrow, says that Barrow is in support of the I-3 highway even though Mettile said that no need for the highway has yet to be identified, and certainly no source of funding for a multi-billion dollar endeavor.
Why is the 3rd Infantry Division Highway Needed?
In the federal transportation legislation known as SAFETEA-LU (Public Law 109-59), Congress directed various studies be conducted. One of the studies is the 3rd Infantry Division Highway, but no reason for the need for the highway is evident according to one Georgia public interest group WaysSouth.
WaysSouth was formed in 2005 when a group of citizens in the Southern Appalachian learned of a proposal by Representatives Charlie Norwood and Max Burns of Georgia to build a new, four-lane superhighway from Savannah to Oak Ridge, TN.
Initially called the Stop I-3 Coalition, the group gained momentum when several Tennessee county commissions passed resolutions voicing opposition to Interstate 3, joined the coalition and hired a paid executive director in March 2007. Later that year, with Rep. Norwood’s death, Interstate 3 largely became dormant as it ground its way through the federal bureaucracy, according to the group.
In the interim, another highway project, Corridor K, gained traction as the North Carolina and Tennessee Departments of Transportation began the planning process for proposals to complete a four-lane highway connecting Asheville and Chattanooga. Then, Interstate 3 again gained press as politicians discussed the possibility of routing it through South Carolina instead of north Georgia after strong opposition by local groups to running the highway through the North Georgia mountains.
The group’s board of directors realized that opposition to Corridor K and Interstate 3 required leadership at an organized, professional, regional level. Therefore, in 2008, they made the decision to broaden the scope of the coalition’s work and a number of Georgia organizations joined the cause.
For the current study, Congress has provided what is termed “High Priority Project funding” for the study.
The Wilbur Smith firm has been collecting and analyzing existing transportation, environmental and socioeconomic information; developing potential study alignments; determining conceptual cost estimates; documenting the steps involved in constructing highways; conducting stakeholder involvement; will recommending whether additional studies are needed; and will submit a report to Congress.
An expert working group (EWG), comprised of representatives from regional, state and federal transportation, was formed in fall 2010 to help plan and guide the study, comprised of representatives from regional, state and federal transportation agencies, local and regional planning organizations, environmental resource agencies and an advocacy group.
The study team has considered the current transportation network, existing and planned improvements, environmental and cultural resources, military facilities, economic generators, stakeholder input and other factors for each of the cities, and the ability to move between the cities.
“Sensitive environmental resources will be avoided to the extent possible, such as protected state and federal lands (e.g., wilderness areas), areas with geologic issues (e.g., challenging terrain, high rockslide potential) and protected wildlife habitats,” states FHWA.
Once the report has been submitted to Congress, the U.S. Department of Transportation will determine whether to proceed with additional studies. “Additional studies may include a detailed analysis of potential benefits and impacts related to safety, environmental resources, social justice, economic development and other issues if the highway was constructed.
WaysSouth Latest Statements
Jim Grode, WaysSouth’s executive director, recently attended the second meeting of the Expert Working Group (EWG) monitoring the I-3 Study and expressed frustration.
“The purpose of the I-3 Study is as nebulous as ever,” states Grode. “FHWA and its contractor are doing the study because the statute, the law, tells them to. There is no other defined purpose and need for the project. How do you determine whether a routing should be considered when you don’t know what the route needs to accomplish?” he asks.
“The study will not result in a recommended alternative (unless directed by Congress) and will not necessarily lead to construction of any specific improvements. According to the contractor, further work will occur only if the affected states request it,” says Grode.
The study area extends from Savannah to Augusta, on to Lavonia, GA, and then to Knoxville, TN. The width of the study area ranges from Atlanta on the west to Columbia and Greenville on the east.
“Control points” are being looked at, the endpoint of a proposed highway improvement that would have “independent utility.”
WaysSouth states that these points being looked at are:
• The Savannah Control Point would provide for a connection along I-95 between the east side of Fort Stewart and the Savannah River Parkway.
• Augusta Control Point extends from west of Fort Gordon to the other side of the border. The point would provide for a corridor crossing I-520 around Augusta or I-20 from the western edge of Augusta to a point just west of Fort Gordon.
• Lavonia Control Point is along I-85 from west of the Greenville Bypass (south side of Greenville) to the US 441 Interchange (just north of Commerce).
• Knoxville Control Point would connect to an existing limited access highway in Knoxville.
According to WaysSouth, Wilbur Smith & Associates is drafting maps to illustrate potential corridors for the 3rd Infantry Division Highway (I-3). At least one at Interstate design level, one utilizing existing highway upgrade. Also, one route inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is being studied, along with several routes outside GSMNP.
The ‘Conceptual Feasibility Report’ will be submitted to FHWA in June including whether to undertake optional related sub-studies.
According to WaysSouth, the final study “will not formally consider the no-build option, since the purpose is to identify potential routes, and no-build is not a route. However, if the process moves forward, the law will require that the no-build option be formally considered.”
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