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Historic site stalls highway

Engineers to rework route for Fall Line Freeway from Augusta to Columbus to avoid Ocmulgee monument

Web posted Aug. 29 at 02:57 AM

By Alisa DeMao
Staff Writer

The path of progress has hit a snag in middle Georgia -- and this time around, tradition is winning the battle.

photo: metro

  Click on graphic to view a larger image.


The Fall Line Freeway -- a 215-mile stretch of road designed to connect Columbus to Augusta as part of a decade-old rural highway program -- has been stalled in Macon as engineers seek a way around the Ocmulgee National Monument, a federally protected historic site.

State engineers expect it will take years to figure out how to work around the park.

Along with the Savannah River Parkway, the Fall Line Freeway has been eagerly anticipated by area residents because it would finally provide easy highway access to rural areas outside metro Atlanta. Officials say it will jump-start economic growth by bringing in new industries that will only build where they can easily ship their products.

``Transportation -- it's one of the top questions industries ask,'' said Scott McGregor, vice president of community development at the Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce. ``Depending on what kind of business it is, it's possibly `the' top question.''

But the completion date keeps getting pushed back.

The Governor's Regional Improvement Program, the road-building project that includes the two roads and 12 other rural highways, was designed to be completed by 2000, but only two roads have been finished, including Corridor Z, which cuts across south Georgia. Now officials estimate the Fall Line Freeway won't be finished until 2006.

Last year, they were hoping for completion by 2005.

State Department of Transportation engineers have hired a consultant to find a way around the federal park in Macon, which preserves ancient Indian earth mounds from an Ice Age people who eventually became the Creek Nation.

But there doesn't seem to be any alternative that wouldn't scuttle the whole point of the road -- easy access to the cities along the route.

The park covers more than 700 acres of land. And an area of about 20,000 acres to the south of the park is also federally protected as ``Traditional Cultural Property'' of the Creek, said David Studstill, an engineer with the state Department of Transportation.

``The area is so sensitive now, it's almost like trying to build a road across the Gettysburg Battlefield,'' he said. ``It's extremely difficult to find an area that doesn't cross the TCP. We can move well to the south, but that alignment

wouldn't meet the needs of the project. Obviously, if you put a road a few miles away from Macon, what's it going to do for Macon?''

The proposed roadwork is actually designed to create Macon's Eisenhower Parkway Extension, but -- as is the case with many stretches of the Fall Line Freeway -- the freeway will piggyback local highways. That has allowed the GRIP program to focus on upgrading existing roads in most places, rather than building an entirely new roadway.

In Richmond County, for instance, the freeway piggybacks U.S. Highway 1.

Meanwhile, another deadline approaches, marked by the ozone emissions of factories and modern-day transportation.

With Macon rapidly heading toward status as a nonattainment zone under air-quality guidelines from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the city soon could be subject to restrictions on road construction.

Macon has failed to meet federal air-quality standards for the past two years, placing its federal highway funds in jeopardy.

Atlanta, already a nonattainment zone, has a highway-building moratorium in place.

And if Columbus, Macon and Augusta, the three major cities on the Fall Line Freeway, become nonattainment zones, they would fall under the jurisdiction of the Governor's Regional Transportation Authority, a state superagency that takes roadwork decisions out of the hands of city and county governments.

``Until we become nonattainment, the transportation authority has nothing to do with us,'' says Jimmy Lester, who represents the 10th Congressional District on the state Board of Transportation. ``They can't freeze our funds.''

For now, the holdup is just one more in a long string of delays on the project -- but every day the road is delayed means lost money.

A transportation department study conducted in 1996 credited four-lane highways with creating nearly 10,000 new jobs in Georgia counties. Almost half of those jobs were the result of GRIP road expansions.

By contrast, counties blamed the lack of new roads for the loss of potential business opportunities that would have created an additional 5,000 jobs.

``All Atlanta has ever had going for it is quality transportation,'' Mr. MacGregor said. ``Augusta was the place to be when the river provided transportation. Then the trains came in, and then Atlanta built the airport, and the city became a major business center in the United States. If we could have one-tenth of the level of transportation accessibility they do, it would make a difference.''

Alisa DeMao covers transportation for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3223 or ademao@augustachronicle.com.


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