A long-envisioned plan to build Georgia’s first interstate highway since the 1960s has gained new momentum.
The $1 trillion infrastructure spending bill the U.S. Senate passed this month includes a provision designating Interstate 14 as a “high priority corridor.” The highway would run from Texas to Georgia, connecting many of the Deep South’s military bases and ports.
While the road would be paid for through the normal federal funding process, getting into the Senate bill marks an important step, Josh Waller, director of policy and government affairs for the Georgia Department of Transportation, told members of the State Transportation Board Aug. 19.
“It’s not quite making it I-14 yet,” Waller said. “It’s sort of placing a statement that Congress would like to see it become I-14.”
The state of Georgia is on record endorsing the project. The General Assembly approved a resolution two years ago supporting the construction of the Georgia portion of I-14, which would run from Columbus to Augusta.
State Sen. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus, sponsored the resolution noting the lack of quality highway connectivity between the two cities.
“There’s no easy way to get there,” he said. “This makes a lot of sense.”
While Harbison steered the I-14 resolution through the legislature, the driving force behind the project has been Frank Lumpkin, who started has quest as a high school student in Columbus and is now in his second year of law school at the University of Georgia.
Picking up on an idea that originated in the early 2000s, Lumpkin made a presentation to the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce four years ago and has continued using the same talking points in outlining the project to lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. His latest convert is U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who worked across the aisle with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to insert the I-14 designation as an amendment to the infrastructure bill.
Lumpkin said the project’s benefits would be threefold: It would improve highway connectivity within Georgia, increase access to and from the Deep South’s military bases and promote economic development in communities in need of a boost.
Building an interstate highway through Georgia’s midsection from Columbus to Augusta by way of Macon not only would connect those communities to the interstate system, Lumpkin said. It would divert a lot of truck traffic from metro-Atlanta’s traffic-choked interstate network, he said.
“A quarter to a third of Atlanta’s truck traffic is not going to Atlanta but through Atlanta,” he said. “If we can take unnecessary truck traffic out of that area, we can significantly alleviate traffic congestion.”
Lumpkin said building I-14 also would have national security benefits by giving Fort Benning, near Columbus, one of the largest military bases in the U.S., a direct connection via Macon and I-16 to Savannah for purposes of troop deployment. Other Georgia military bases along or near the planned route include Robins Air Force Base south of Macon, Fort Gordon near Augusta and Fort Stewart near Savannah.
John Thompson, who founded and chairs the Gulf Coast Strategic Highway Coalition on the western side of the project route in Texas, said the same holds true for military bases west of Georgia including Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Polk in Louisiana and Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.
In fact, Thompson’s coalition has given I-14 the catchy nickname “Forts to Ports,” pointing not only to its proximity to military bases but to ports stretching from Corpus Christi, Texas, to the Port of Savannah.
Thompson said I-14 would provide a convenient route for moving military equipment and personnel as well as an additional hurricane evacuation route. Its proximity to ports would ease the movement of freight, giving rural communities a better chance to land business prospects, he said.
“It goes through an area of the country where the vast majority of it is economically challenged,” he said. “If you don’t have a good transportation system, you do not get to play in the big games.”
So far, only 25 miles of Interstate 14 have actually been built, a stretch of highway near Fort Hood.
But Lumpkin said the presence of even that small segment is important to the project’s chances of becoming reality.
“It became this idea of expanding this highway to Georgia rather than pie in the sky,” he said.
While there’s no firm cost estimate for the project as yet or a completion date, Lumpkin said some stretches of I-14 could be opened within a few years by improving existing roadways to interstate standards, a move that also would save money compared to building from scratch.
The fate of the high-priority designation for I-14 is tied directly to the rest of the massive Senate infrastructure bill.
The bipartisan legislation is caught up in a dispute among majority Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives over whether to pass it quickly and send it President Joe Biden’s desk or hold off until the Senate acts on a broader $3.5 trillion spending bill Republicans oppose.
But having both Warnock and Cruz, normally political opponents, getting behind it certainly helps its chances.
“When you think of the areas that I-14 will connect, these are all areas that have been forgotten or neglected by some for too long,” Warnock said. “I’m committed to do everything I can to spur economic growth in every corner of our state.”
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