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Isakson's highway heroics

Former President Jimmy Carter, a much-berated Democrat, apparently has more influence in Republican-dominated Washington, D.C., than the state's GOP-controlled congressional delegation.

Carter recently called upon the Base Realignment and Closure Commission to save a submarine base in Connecticut from closing. Shutting the facility would have meant transfer of thousands of jobs to the southeast Georgia coast. Carter's side won, and Carter's national-defense argument received much of the credit for the victory. The New England base will not close. Georgia will not receive the additional employment.

Meanwhile, the state's 13 House members and two senators - plus the governor - failed to convince the base-closing commission that four major Georgia military installations needed to be preserved. All are expected to be emptied of personnel and padlocked. Thousands of military-related jobs will disappear.

One easy conclusion from the above: Georgia may have its least influential congressional delegation in recent history. Forget about a failure to bring home the bacon. These lawmakers can't seem to keep the bacon once it's here.

Ah, but wait a minute. That assessment may be a bit harsh. Georgia indeed has at least one effective, though barely recognized, advocate for gaining more federal largesse.

Sen. Johnny Isakson is the unsung hero of the new federal highway bill, assuring that Georgia may get an additional $287 million each year in federal funds, said David Doss, Department of Transportation Board chairman.

Few noticed that Georgia is once again rolling in federal highway clover because of one small but noisy item. Most of the yapping about the highway bill has centered on a relatively tiny packet of $1.2 million in federal cash for a feasibility study of an interstate highway from Savannah to Knoxville, Tenn., and another proposed route from Savannah to Mississippi. Groups aiming to stop these highways are already on the march, scaring the daylights out of any politician who dares say the proposed roads might be worthwhile.

"These (interstate projects) are not even on our radar screens yet," said Doss, suggesting the energized protesters may not fully realize how long even the preliminary process for approving the routes could take.

Doss estimates that if an interstate highway is ever actually built from, say, Savannah to Knoxville, the first shovel of dirt would not be turned for another 15 or 20 years.

Thanks to Isakson, however, the extra $287 million per year in federal money for Georgia highways is real right now, Doss said. Eighth District Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Grantville, a member of the House Transportation Committee, also deserves credit.

While still a congressman last year, Isakson showed uncommon courage, in Doss' view, in voting against a popular revision of the federal highway bill - a move that earned him flak in his campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Some projections indicated that the bill Isakson helped block in the House would have cut the state's return from 85 cents to less than 80 cents for each federal motor-fuel dollar collected in Georgia. Until a few years ago, Georgians could count on getting back as much as $1.50 for every federal gas-tax dollar collected in our fair state, but those salad days are gone forever.

Isakson's new Senate colleagues were impressed with his performance on the federal highway bill in the House and put him on the Senate conference committee. The conference-approved highway bill eliminated the various tricks that worked against Georgia getting back a mandated 90 percent of the federal fuel tax. In fact, the current version moves the state's share up to more than 92 percent, which translates into that additional $287 million per year, over the roughly $1 billion per year now received by the state.

Back at the anti-interstate barricades, county commissioners in Habersham, Rabun and White have passed resolutions opposing Interstate 3 (the Savannah-to-Knoxville route). Other local elected officials may follow.

The immediate fierce opposition has already had political impact. A spokesman for 9th District Rep. Charles Norwood, R-Augusta, first said that the new interstates might improve the environment by eliminating some traffic through Atlanta. After the ensuing uproar, the congressman now says he will certainly follow the wishes of his constituents.

The Georgia Legislature earlier this year approved $100,000 for a group promoting the interstates, presumably with Gov. Sonny Perdue's approval. The governor now says that he will take no position on the issue until a feasibility study is completed. No one seems to know when that might be.

Interstate transportation projects can be political killers, as former Gov. Roy Barnes can testify. Organized opposition to the Northern Arc connecting I-75 to I-85 north of Atlanta voted overwhelmingly against Arc supporter Barnes, contributing measurably to his 2002 defeat. The proposal died quietly soon after the election.

Anyone worried that work on Interstate 3 is imminent should consider the history of the "Fall Line Freeway." Suggested decades ago as a limited-access highway connecting Augusta, Macon and Columbus, the fall-line route remains hung up in environmental battles involving ancient Indian mounds near Macon. No one yet has come up with a plan agreeable to the city of Macon, the county of Bibb, and, of course, the Indians.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.