This week’s Courier Herald column:
Roughly 25 miles of Texas interstate highway has started making a stir in social media in Georgia and Alabama. Interstate 14 currently runs between Fort Hood and Belton Texas, just north of the Austin metro area. A few students from Georgia and Alabama operating at the “Youth Infrastructure Coalition” have dusted off old plans and are promoting a corridor that would run from Texas to Augusta Georgia, passing through Columbus and Macon along the way.
The idea of a group of students launching a multi-year, multi-billion dollar infrastructure project can’t be dismissed out of hand. It was Georgia Tech graduate student that conceived the idea of Atlanta’s Beltline – a proposed transit and trail loop around the city’s inner core – in 1999. Another major piece of right of way was acquired last week, as the project works toward a projected 2030 build out.
The timeline of the Beltline build out should be a cautionary tale to anyone getting overly excited about the prospect of new interstates in rural Georgia. These projects are incredibly expensive. The process to acquire right of way is lengthy and legally tedious. Then, there is the federal permitting process, which can take a decade or longer. It’s entirely possible that those in the Youth Infrastructure Coalition could be middle aged or beyond before they could drive on the road they are promoting. Such is the nature of large infrastructure projects.
This is, of course, assuming two major ingredients that are not yet part of the I-24 mix can be attained. There’s currently a lack of political will toward Georgia adopting the project. There’s also a lack of funding.
It was actually a Georgia politician, the late Congressman Charlie Norwood, that originally floated the idea of the interstate corridor. A few studies have been conducted here and there. Georgia, however, decided for the more cost effective non-interstate approach to finish the Fall Line Freeway covering the same route. It’s a multi-lane highway corridor, but lacks the limited access control to qualify as a full interstate highway.
It should not be assumed that it’s the folks in Atlanta that kept the Fall Line Freeway from being completed as an interstate highway. Influential people in towns along the route have fears that an interstate would create bypasses to their communities, letting a bit of their commerce speed by them at 70 miles per hour.
Then, there’s the Columbus connection. Columbus’ Mayor and other leaders are currently proposing a high speed rail network to connect the city to Atlanta. In a state with limited transportation funds to fulfill unlimited needs, it’s hard to imagine both projects being prioritized.
Which brings us to that funding issue. While Georgia passed HB 170 in 2015 and added almost $1 Billion per year in new funding for road and bridges, much of that money is dedicated to replacing Georgia’s aging bridges over the next two decades, with additional money being used to upgrade existing freeways throughout the state in high traffic corridors.
The parts of rural Georgia without interstates were not left out of the strategic plans with the new funds, however. The Governor’s Road Improvement Program (GRIP) should be able to be completed over the next decade with these funds. The Fall Line Freeway was one of the earlier projects under this plan. Current projects include making highways 441 and 1 full north-south corridors though eastern Georgia, and a direct connection from Albany to Valdosta, among other improvements.
And yet, the G in GRIP stands for Governor. Georgia is about to have a new one of those, and as such, all plans can change.
Those of us in Metro Atlanta would likely appreciate the idea of expanded freight corridors to move large trucks around Atlanta before they ever approach I-285. Parts of Rural Georgia would appreciate the opportunity to connect more directly with the Ports.
The question with all of these projects that people desire is are they also willing to pay even more for them. Drawing pictures to connect cities on a map is relatively easy. Finding the political will to execute and fund those dreams, quite a bit harder.