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Momentum keeps building for Stop I-3 coalition

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

The Stop I-3 Coalition — the grassroots organization that aims to prevent construction of a proposed interstate running from Savannah to Knoxville — has received a boost to its efforts as the Southwestern Regional Planning Commission has come out against the proposed interstate’s construction.

“Construction of an interstate highway through the rugged terrain of southwestern North Carolina would have a devastating environmental, economic, cultural and aesthetic impact on these mountains, including the Nantahala National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” according to the resolution issued by the Southwestern Commission.

Southwestern Commission is one of 17 regional North Carolina Councils of Governments (Region A) established by the North Carolina General Assembly for the purpose of regional planning and administration. Headquartered in Bryson City, North Carolina, it serves Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Swain, Haywood, Jackson, and Macon counties. The commission is the first regional planning commission along the I-3 corridor to publicly oppose the interstate.

“That’s enormous,” said Elizabeth Wells, the coalition’s executive director.

Local coalition member Roger Turner agreed.

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“You’ve now got a chunk of North Carolina that would be impacted by I-3 saying we don’t want it,” said Turner, also a member of the WNC Alliance and Jackson-Macon County Alliance.

Of the local governments in the 34 counties along what’s thought to be the I-3 corridor, nine have passed resolutions opposing the interstate including Habersham, Lumpkin, Rabun, Towns and White in Georgia, Clay and Macon in North Carolina. The Town of Highlands was the first municipality to come out in opposition to the interstate.

The Stop I-3 Coalition opposes construction of Interstate 3 or any similar highway in the Southern Appalachian and Piedmont Region. The proposal for the interstate came from Georgia’s 12th District Republican Congressman Max Burns, who called for a highway to be built from Savannah to Knoxville via Augusta, Ga. Burns gave legislators and local government officials in the highway’s path no notice of his intentions.

As of yet a route for the highway has not been officially designated. In August 2005, Congress appropriated $1.3 million to study the highway. Though dubbed a feasibility study, the study aims more to establish a process than a road route. How estimating a cost of construction can be done without a route is anyone’s guess.

The state of Georgia and the Federal Highway Administration have authored a memorandum of agreement that should soon lead to the transfer of the $1.3 million for the study, Wells said. Following the transfer, there will be a request for proposals, and hiring of a consultant to perform the study. But as slow as the process has been moving so far, Wells predicted that the study might not be completed by its target date of September 2009.

The Southwestern Commission’s resolution noted that the preference of Western North Carolinians and their elected representatives would be to see “any new federal highway funds” allocated to completion of Appalachian Corridor K.

Corridor K was started in the 1960s as a transportation project to connect Chattanooga, Tenn., to Stecoah via N.C. 28 to loop around Lake Fontana. When Corridor K is finished, it would be possible to make a connection to Knoxville, thereby negating any sort of need for I-3, said interstate opponent Turner.

What power the coalition and the resolutions that have come out against the interstate will have remains to be seen; however, Wells said she is optimistic.

“The D.O.T. listens a lot to the county commissioners,” she said.

Last week the Sierra Club organized a meeting in Knoxville to educate the public about the proposed interstate. The meeting was heavily covered in local newspapers and it seems the movement against the interstate once again has carried across state lines.

“Now the D.O.T. in Tennessee has contacted Federal Highway in Washington and the Tennessee group is getting activated,” Wells said.

Letters of support continue to roll in from students and school groups wanting to join the voice of opposition, prompting the coalition to post a new tab on its Web site specifically for youth.

Meanwhile, the coalition recently received a $50,000 grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation, and has hired a new operations manager, Sandy Lyndon.

“It’s just great to have someone else who is here and share the load of all there is to do,” Wells said.

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