Audit: State approved $2 billion road project without proof it’s needed

While metro Atlantans will have to pay to use the interstate capacity planned for I-75, I-285 and Ga. 400, the proposed truck-only lanes on I-75 between Macon and Atlanta would be new capacity added at no cost to the freight industry. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM/ March 2016 file photo

While metro Atlantans will have to pay to use the interstate capacity planned for I-75, I-285 and Ga. 400, the proposed truck-only lanes on I-75 between Macon and Atlanta would be new capacity added at no cost to the freight industry. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM/ March 2016 file photo

Georgia transportation officials gave the green light to a $2 billion highway project without clear evidence it was needed, an audit has found.

The project would add 40 miles of trucks-only lanes on I-75 between Macon and McDonough. Such lanes have never been tried on such a scale in the United States. But the Georgia Department of Transportation gave its initial approval "without clear indication that the project is a justified investment," the report by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts found.

That's just one of the highlights of an audit that found GDOT's initial project-screening process is not transparent enough and relies too little on objective criteria. The consequences are troubling.

Dozens of local officials told auditors they believe political influence is a significant factor in determining which projects get state funding. And taxpayers can’t be sure their money goes to the most worthy projects.

Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said he is “baffled” that the truck lanes have become a state priority.

“What else could you do with $2 billion?” Herring said. “Is that the best you can do? You could put passenger trains between Atlanta and Macon — a lot of them.”

GDOT Planning Director Jay Roberts — whose department makes the decisions questioned in the audit — said he may adopt some of its recommendations. But he disputed the contention that the selection process is not transparent.

Roberts said the department uses data to make decisions, but reliance on data alone could mean worthy projects — including the truck lanes — might not get selected.

“You can’t use a one-size-fits-all formula,” he said.

Roberts was appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to the planning director job and essentially functions as the governor’s man at the otherwise independent GDOT.

The Department of Audits and Accounts conducted the review at the request of the state Senate Appropriations Committee. Auditors examined GDOT’s handling of hundreds of projects designed to alleviate traffic congestion.

The audit focused on the initial screening that put projects on a list to receive funding. It found the department does not use many of the best practices that other states employ.

For example, GDOT does not conduct cost-benefit analyses for projects before selecting them for funding. And it lacks a formal process and criteria for its initial selection decisions.

After the initial selection is made, GDOT uses a scoring process to determine which projects become priorities for funding, the audit found. But the scoring method and criteria used are “problematic.”

» VIDEO: Are truck lanes good for Georgia?

Roberts said clearing the initial screening is no guarantee a project will be built.

“It doesn’t mean that money has been spent,” he said. “It means it’s a project we think is worth looking at.”

The I-75 truck lanes are one example.

The project is the state’s $2 billion effort to reduce congestion on a busy stretch of I-75, scheduled for construction sometime in the next decade. It would add two toll-free lanes for trucks only, separated by barriers from the other lanes.

But the project would cost twice as much as the most expensive road project in state history to date. And GDOT selected the project without conducting a cost-benefit analysis to see if it was worth it.

The state of Georgia plans to spend $2 billion to build lanes just for tractor-trailers on I-75 between Macon and Atlanta. It would be the first project of its kind in the nation, but The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned it needs further s...

A 2008 study found the truck lanes might be a good investment but made no recommendation. After GDOT gave it a green light, a consultant estimated the new truck lanes would reduce vehicle hours of delay by 40 percent in the corridor.

Roberts said if that study had found the project was not viable, “we wouldn’t have moved forward with it.” He said the benefit is clear.

“If you drive up and down 75, you can look at it and see truck traffic is huge there,” Roberts said.

» RELATED: Gridlock Guy: Truck-only lanes may be solution for I-75 congestion

As for the audit, Roberts said: “They didn’t say it wasn’t a good project. They said we should have done a study before (deciding to move forward).”

Brian Gist, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, welcomed the audit’s findings. He said GDOT should use the kind of data-driven selection process used in other states.

“The public should be able to go in and figure out, why are we building this project rather than that project?” Gist said. “Are we using our money for the best-performing project?”

GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry said the agency has “come a long way” in making its operations more transparent. For example, it has detailed information about construction projects on its website.

But McMurry said there’s “probably some things we’ll tweak and change” in response to the audit.

Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the committee "will continue to keep a close eye on the planning and funding of transportation projects." But he's not convinced "a sterile evaluation process without some public input through their elected representatives meets the complete needs of Georgia's citizens."

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» The Georgia Department of Transportation’s planning division lacks criteria for the initial selection of construction projects designed to reduce traffic congestion. One example: It does not conduct cost-benefit analyses to determine if projects are worth the cost.

» The division lacks detailed policies and procedures to guide selection decisions, and the reasons for its decisions are not well-documented.

» Many local officials believe that political influence plays a significant role in GDOT’s project selection decisions.

Selected recommendations

» The planning division should develop a formal project-selection process, using standard criteria to assess the value of projects.

» The General Assembly should consider requiring cost-benefit analyses of projects to ensure taxpayer dollars are well-spent.

» The General Assembly should consider requiring the division to publicly disclose more information about its project selection decisions.