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Road to ruin 

The Appalachian Scenic Corridor will help you get through the mountains faster, but will there be anything left worth visiting?

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Then, on June 28, he announced he was speeding up the pace of DOT's road paving across the entire state by expediting the Governor's Road Improvement Project, a $2 billion plan to encourage economic development in rural areas by putting 98 percent of Georgia's population within 20 miles of a multi-lane highway. GRIP uses taxpayer debt to fund "developmental highways," which by definition are roads that aren't needed; they're just being built to spur economic growth in the communities through which they run -- a dubious supposition.

Barnes' plan would accelerate construction of the Appalachian Scenic Corridor, which is part of GRIP. Road building on some parts are scheduled to begin this fall. But even the DOT doesn't know how long it will take to complete the widenings, brand new segments of highway and other "improvements."

In its 4-inch thick, 346-page feasibility study of the Appalachian Scenic Corridor, the DOT doesn't mention the endangered darters or mussels on the brink of extinction.

But it does claim benefits of the corridor will reach $1 billion annually by cutting back on travel time, gas and vehicle maintenance, and the potential income of new jobs the road will spur.

Ah yes, new jobs. The mantra of Georgia governors typically has been, build the roads and the jobs will follow. Barnes is singing that same song.

The foothills of the Appalachians aren't exactly a fountain of wealth. The per capita income of residents in the 15 counties along the corridor's route ranges from $14,590 to $21,425 -- all below the state average, according to the DOT. So it's no surprise that plenty of folks up there are looking forward to the perks that come with new development.

But growth certainly hasn't been a problem along the corridor. Population increases in counties along the route all were pretty healthy during the 1990s, ranging up to 76 percent in Gilmer County. And while the road might help move that rapid growth into the kind of hyper-drive that has created so many traffic problems in places like Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, it's unlikely to raise the low incomes of folks who already live there.

As the Mountain Community Alliance's Littlefield points out, the typically minimum-wage fast-food and gas stations jobs the corridor is expected to generate aren't the high-paying professions that'll really help the region.

"It's a boondoggle sort of thing," Littlefield says. "No one seems to think it's a good idea except for DOT and big business."

Not to worry -- everyone pretty much wants unfettered growth in the mountains, according to corridor advocates.

"The area is very much in pro-growth mentality," says Vanden Bosch, director of community and economic development services at the North Georgia Regional Development Center. "There's no effort to control growth to the point of limiting it."

As required every 10 years by state law, Bosch and others with the development center are working with elected officials in Fannin, Gilmer, Murray, Pickens and Whitfield counties on a plan that'll guide development and land-use patterns. Bosch expects the counties and cities in member counties to adopt the plan in October.

The good news is the plan seeks to set aside an ambitious goal of 40,000 acres of green space in the five counties.

The bad news is that, in accordance with the area's pro-growth mentality, the plan will only recommend to developers where they can build subdivisions.

That means developers can set aside greenspace or preserve stream buffers if they feel like it. But it's only an option; nothing holds them to it, and there will be no tax incentives or other motivations. And, given the kind of development that predominates along the route, it seems unlikely developers will volunteer to try out progressive, environmentally sensitive ideas that'll cost them more money.

When the road does open, between 500 and 2,000 trucks will thunder each day along the Appalachian Scenic Corridor. The DOT's own study says the amount of traffic along the corridor's proposed route would not get worse unless the new road was built. In fact, traffic in Lumpkin, Gilmer, Dawson and Pickens counties will increase two-and-a-half times when the corridor opens.

That much traffic means charming mountain towns will end up looking like Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

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