The proposed Interstate 3 first came to public attention in 2004, when Representative Max Burns of Georgia’s 12th Congressional District introduced the Interstate 3/3rd Infantry Division Highway Initiation Act, H.R. 4926. Also introduced as S. 2736 in the Senate, the bill would have authorized a study of a new Interstate Highway route connecting Savannah, Georgia, with Knoxville, Tennessee. The bill did not move forward, and in 2005, following Rep. Burns’ defeat, the mantle was taken back up by Representative Charlie Norwood of Georgia’s 10th Congressional District.

In the spring of that year, a newsletter arrived in the mail to citizens in Georgia’s 10th Congressional District. In the newsletter, Representative Norwood grandly presented his plan for Interstate 3, detailing a route from Savannah, Georgia, through Augusta, Georgia, to Murphy, North Carolina, and then through the Southern Appalachians and up U.S. Highway 129 to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Groups protesting the planned highway formed in almost every community in North Georgia and western North Carolina. By the end of summer, the local groups joined and formed the Stop I-3 Coalition. The Interstate 3 story was told on television, in local and Atlanta newspapers, and on National Public Radio.

Meanwhile, five Georgia counties, two North Carolina counties, one city and one North Carolina Regional Development Commission held hearings on the matter and voted to pass resolutions against the highway.

In the face of this opposition, Rep. Norwood was unable to move his stand-alone bill forward, but he quietly managed to achieve his goal. At his instigation, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), the 2005 transportation authorization act, included a provision requiring the Secretary of Transportation to:

carry out a study and submit to the appropriate committees of Congress a report that describes the steps and estimated funding necessary to designate and construct a route for the 3rd Infantry Division Highway, extending from Savannah, Georgia, to Knoxville, Tennessee, by way of Augusta, Georgia (formerly the Savannah River Parkway in the State of Georgia). (SAFETEA-LU § 1927.)

SAFETEA-LU also included three line items earmarking funds totaling $1.32 million to conduct the study.

When Representative Norwood died, the Stop I-3 Coalition’s political clout became apparent. All 10 candidates running to replace Norwood opposed I-3. The eventual winner, Paul Broun (R-Athens), was particularly vocal in his opposition, and he promised to have the study rescinded.

When Representative Broun took office in Washington, however, he could not stop the study. He decided that he would at least try to keep the interstate out of the Georgia mountains and proposed an addition to the “technical correction” to SAFETEA-LU that was being considered by Congress. His proposal would have specified that Interstate 3 would go from Savannah to Augusta and then through Greenville or Clinton, South Carolina, on its way to Tennessee. The Stop I-3 Coalition’s board of directors stood behind the early decision to fight Interstate 3 through any part of the Southern Appalachians or Piedmont and voted to oppose Broun’s proposal. In the end, the proposal was not included in the technical correction passed by Congress in 2008.

Following the 2008 Congressional session, I-3 lay quiet, and people even began to wonder if it had gone away, until the spring of 2010, when the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) announced that it had requested proposals to conduct the study authorized by SAFETEA-LU. In June, FHWA awarded the contract to ICF, International (ICFI), and the study got underway in July 2010.

As one of their first acts, ICFI and FHWA appointed an expert working group (EWG) to advise them during the study process. The EWG includes mostly federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and National Park Service along with a few state and local government agencies and WaysSouth, the successor to the Stop I-3 Coalition. WaysSouth is the only nongovernmental organization serving on the EWG.

The study will begin with data collection, followed by identification of potential routes and designs for the proposed highway, including at least one through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Once routes and designs have been selected, the study will estimate the costs and necessary steps to construct each proposed alternative route. Finally, there is an option for additional “sub-studies” on various economic, social, and environmental factors going beyond the scope of the Congressionally-mandated study. There will be opportunities for public involvement during the study, and WaysSouth will help ensure that those opportunities are well-publicized. The first phase of the study is expected to be completed in mid- to late-2011. Optional sub-studies could take up to another year.

According to the FHWA, there is no predetermined outcome of the study, and it could ultimately recommend that I-3 not be built and no further studies be conducted. Until then, however, I-3 remains a real threat.