No interstate for Albany

ALBANY -- The Georgia Department of Transportation says that Southwest Georgia leaders should focus on expanding existing corridors such as highways 133 or 27 rather than focus on the possibility of expanding an interstate through the region.

At an Oct. 14 stakeholders meeting, GDOT officials said that after completing a feasibility study, building an interstate is not in the best interest of the Southwest Georgia region.

Arguing for the economic advantages of having an interstate nearby, a consortium of leaders and legislators have lobbied for one for decades, since Tifton and Valdosta were selected as home sites of Interstate 75, which connects Macon with Florida to the south and Atlanta to the north.

"I don't see this as necessarily a bad thing," Dougherty County Commission Vice Chairman Lamar Hudgins said. "I think the focus now will be on expanding (Georgia Highway) 133, which we've been pushing for a while as a means to grow industry and help our Marine base."

The third and final round of public meetings on the issue will be held Nov. 2 at 5 p.m. at Southwest Georgia Technical College, at 5 p.m. on Nov. 9 at Albany State University's Orene Hall and at 5 p.m. Nov. 12 in Cusseta at the Chattahoochee County Middle and High School cafeteria.

The study focused on a 32-county area that bordered the Alabama and Florida state lines to the south and west and Marion, Muscogee, Chattahoochee and Macon counties to the north and the counties that contain Interstate 75 to the east.

The study also reached out to school students -- receiving 4,500 responses -- through stakeholder surveys, public meetings and the Web site www.swgainterstate.com.

Of the surveys received, 70 to 80 percent of respondents said they had experienced transportation problems throughout the proposed area, with top concerns centered around speeding, tractor-trailer trucks and safety at intersections.

The study also incorporated population growth, which officials said was trending upward to the point that in 2035, there are expected to be more than one million people in Southwest Georgia.

GDOT officials have already committed to improving highway infrastructure throughout the surveyed area. They have begun widening Interstate 185 in Columbus from four to six lanes, Interstate 75 from four to six lanes, U.S. 19 from two to four lanes from Schley County to Leesburg, and U.S. 27 from two to four lanes from Early County to Colquitt in Miller County.

During the study, GDOT identified four possible corridors or interstate alignments: connectors from Tallahassee to Columbus, from Columbus to Valdosta, from Cordele and I-75 to Tallahassee and from Columbus and I-185 to Tifton and I-75.

Each of the four planned corridors passed through Albany and Dougherty County.

But after a review, all of the plans were found to be inconsistent with comprehensive land use policies in place, were believed to have a detrimental impact on poverty and minority populations and would have a negative impact on prime agricultural land and historic cultural assets, the study says.

The study does say that an interstate would improve economic development policies and improve accessibility to higher education facilities, job training and health care, which is why the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission expressed disappointment at the news.

"We are disappointed at the recommendation to not construct an interstate through Southwest Georgia. Proximity to an interstate increases a community's competitiveness and provides greater opportunities for economic growth," Barbara Rivera Holmes, director of marketing for the EDC, said.

"We are, however, optimistic at the recommendation to pursue the widening of Highway 133, a thoroughfare which, when expanded, will greatly benefit our markets, particularly our local and regional defense industry and its subsectors. This community has been fighting for the expansion of 133 for many years. Along with great affordability, abundant natural resources and a skilled work force, the widening of Highway 133 would be one more advantage of doing business in Albany-Dougherty County."

An official decision on the interstate issue will likely come later this year.