It has been a pet project of Georgia congressmen for years, but the idea of an interstate highway linking Knoxville, Tenn., and Savannah, Ga., rubs many in North Carolina the wrong way. At least seven Tar Heel counties that would be directly affected have turned thumbs down. So have a number of small towns that dot the region. But the federal government is going ahead with a $1.3 million study of possible routes, costs and environmental consequences. “All it would take is one prominent backer, one powerful champion,” says Asheville resident Jim Grode, executive director of WaysSouth, an advocacy group that opposes the project.
The final route of what’s commonly called Interstate 3 would likely use existing roads where feasible, and Grode expects it to run along or near U.S. 441 west of Cherokee through some of the state’s most rugged and pristine terrain, including the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests. Supporters include commercial interests such as developers and logistics companies and manufacturers in Georgia and eastern Tennessee, which say it would give them better access to ports. But in North Carolina, even some business groups have reservations. Fletcher-based AdvantageWest Economic Development Group has not taken a position, but CEO Scott Hamilton says he is concerned I-3 might divert highway funds from other projects, such as widening U.S. 19/23 from Madison through Mitchell and Yancey counties, upgrading I-26 near Asheville and completing Corridor K, primarily U.S. 74 from Asheville to Chattanooga. “Those are a lot of projects already under way, and some have already been delayed.”
Grode’s group warns that I-3 would be expensive. He says it cost $21 million a mile to build I-26 through the mountains north of Asheville — it was completed in 2006 — compared with about $5 million a mile for stretches of I-73/74 in the gentler Piedmont. For his group, other concerns trump cost. For example, the region is known for pyritic rock, which leaches acid into streams and rivers when disturbed. The mountain economy, he says, is heavily based on tourism, which includes such drawing cards as trout fishing. An interstate, he adds, would bypass small towns, spawning interchange and access-road commerce. That would have both business and cultural impacts. “They tend to draw business away from historic downtowns,” he says. “And a lot of people are in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee precisely because they don’t want to be in Atlanta or Charlotte.”