The Federal Highway Administration is looking into a new interstate that would connect Savannah, Ga., to Knoxville, and one group says the route could come as far west as Chatsworth, Ga., and Cleveland, Tenn.
But some groups say any north-south route will destroy pristine mountains and forest and wreck the downtowns of small communities along its path.
Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, said a feasibility study began in June into what would be known as Interstate 3.
The administration will use the study as a "resource that would inform discussion," he said, but that doesn't necessarily mean the interstate is going to be built. The study will look at routes, costs and impacts on tourism, industry and the environment.
"Its primary function is to determine if a project is feasible," he said.
Former U.S. Rep. Max Burns, who represented an area of Georgia including Augusta, Savannah and Milledgeville, introduced legislation in 2004 seeking to connect the two biggest cities in his district - Savannah and Augusta - with a route that would extend into North Georgia and Tennessee. The route number was chosen to honor the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division's involvement in the Iraq war. The unit is based at Fort Stewart near Savannah.
The legislation proposes the highway would connect Savannah, Augusta and Knoxville using existing corridors when possible. Based on that, the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition has mapped out potential routes showing five paths for the superhighway, which would run north of Interstate 85.
The westernmost route runs through Toccoa and Clarkesville before overlapping U.S. Highway 76 to Chatsworth. The route then veers north on U.S. Highway 411 into Tennessee, linking with Interstate 75 at Cleveland.
Eastern routes show I-3 possibly running north along U.S. 441 or state routes 11, 28 and 107 near Walhalla, Ga., before crossing into North Carolina and skirting the west side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Hecox said the study would only show options for the route. If the project moves forward, the states involved would make the final choice, he said.
There is no time frame on the study, but Hecox said he hopes the results would be in by the end of 2011.
Attempts to reach U.S. Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., who defeated Burns to represent the 12th District, and state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, chairman of the Georgia Senate Transportation Committee, were unsuccessful last week. Messages left with the legislators' staffs were not returned.
But one group opposed to I-3 says the highway will ruin the landscape.
Jim Grode, executive director of the Stop I-3 Coalition, said people in the paths of the possible routes don't want to live somewhere "crisscrossed with highways."
He said the interstate would devastate the environment and kill downtown areas as business shifts toward exit ramps.
"This route really serves no legitimate transportation needs," Grode said. "These routes are not going to be quicker or faster."
Erik Brinke, chairman of the Blairsville-Union County Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Cherokee County, N.C., Economic Development Commission, said the area has suffered by not having an interstate, but he's not sure I-3's north-south route is the answer.
The area really needs an east-west interstate linking Chattanooga; Asheville, N.C.; and all the communities in between, he said. Officials in Tennessee and North Carolina have discussed the route - the so-called Corridor K - for decades.
"Folks in this area are generally opposed to the I-3 corridor," Brinke said. "I just don't have a comfort level that Interstate 3 would accomplish (what another route would), although I admit any interstate through our area would help economically."
Grode said the Stop I-3 Coalition, which has evolved into an environmental group called WaySouth, is more supportive of Corridor K because it sees a need for a safer east-west road than crowded, winding U.S. Highway 64.
The group still wants to find ways to minimize the potential highway's impact on the environment, he said.