Picture this. It’s a morning 10 years or so in the future, and you’re driving from Macon to Atlanta on I-75 when traffic slows to a creep.
Over to your right, though, two broad lanes of the interstate are mostly empty, open solely to truckers. The big rigs breeze by your traffic jam at 70 mph.
This future could come to pass. The state plans to spend $2 billion to build truck-only lanes along 40 miles of I-75 between Macon and McDonough. The concept has never been tried before in the U.S., not on this scale. Top state officials are convinced the truck lanes will reduce congestion and make the interstate safer.
“Do we believe it’s going to work? Yes. We wouldn’t be trying it if we didn’t,” said Jay Roberts, planning director for the Georgia Department of Transportation. “If it is as successful as we believe it will be, we could replicate it throughout the state of Georgia.”
That’s a $2 billion “if.” Officials believe the deepening of the harbor in Savannah will mean more ships unloading more cargo, and more cargo will mean more trucks to haul those goods overland. And more trucks will mean more headaches on the main truck route from Savannah to Atlanta: I-16 west to I-75 north.
But there’s something quite unusual about the way the state has come up with the plan.
This risky idea has as of yet received little scrutiny, despite the fact that its cost is nearly twice that of the most expensive road project in state history to date. The state has not undertaken a comprehensive study of other options.
So there’s no evidence that — out of a universe of potential options like widening the freeway, adding express toll lanes or enhancing rail capacity — truck-only lanes are the best way to get traffic moving.
“That’s an enormous investment, $2 billion, and a huge freight corridor,” said John Woodrooffe, retired research scientist emeritus at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. “It’s inconceivable that a project like that would be undertaken without very thorough examination of the impact on vehicle, truck movement, car movement and congestion.”
Gratuity or godsend?
The truck lanes are part of a plan to invest billions of dollars in new road projects over the next decade. The construction palooza will be paid for with proceeds from a mix of new taxes and fees imposed as part of a sweeping transportation funding bill (House Bill 170) that took effect July 1, 2015.
Because of the new revenue, several multi-billion interstate expansion projects that have long been in planning stages will finally get off the starting block.
Gov. Nathan Deal has touted the project as one of the most important strategic investments the state will make over the next decade.
The truck-only lanes project is targeted for a 40-mile stretch of I-75 where truck traffic is expected to double or even triple in the coming years.
Typically when a state embarks on major road projects, stakeholders must be consulted, public opinion must be invited, and other alternatives must be carefully weighed. The process is designed to help states avoid building ill-conceived projects, and make sure the best option wins.
Since freight traffic has different patterns at different times of day than commuter traffic, studying whether separating the two would help as much as a regular road widening is particularly important.
None of that has happened yet with the truck lanes, two northbound-only lanes that would parallel I-75 between Interstate 475 in Macon and Ga. 155 in McDonough.
GDOT Chief Engineer Meg Pirkle said that examining alternatives and gathering public feedback will be the next step.
“Every project starts out with an idea of what we think is needed,” Pirkle said. “We still have to do our due dilligence.”
The state has been eyeing improvements to this segment of I-75 in studies conducted for various purposes over the last decade. The studies identified a need for additional lanes. None of them recommended mandatory truck lanes.
Pirkle said up until now, it didn’t make sense to spend more time and money vetting specific plans for the route. She said before HB170 passed, there wasn’t enough funds to make widening the interstate possible.
Even when studies are done, pinning a project on truck traffic alone can be tricky. In Laredo, Texas, a group of private investors built a tolled freight highway on the expectation of surging truck traffic. Their predictions were wildly off — by more than 10 times too much — despite being done by a respected engineering firm. Creditors foreclosed, selling the Camino-Colombia Toll Road to the state in 1999.
GDOT’s planning division and upper management developed the idea fairly recently, and recommended it to the governor along with a slate of other major interstate projects, said GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale. It’s unclear when the truck lanes will be built. Officials have only said that the project will be advertised for bid to prospective contractors sometime within the next 10 years.
Critics have labeled the I-75 plan a giveaway for the trucking industry. Truck drivers will get to use the new lanes on I-75 at no cost. By contrast, new interstate lanes to be built on I-285, Ga. 400 and I-75 for regular commuters in the future will be express toll lanes.
“A truck-only lane with no toll is getting real close to a gratuity,” said Neill Herring, a longtime lobbyist for the Sierra Club in Georgia, which advocates for transit funding. “$2 billion would put multiple passenger trains between Macon and Atlanta. That investment would remove far more vehicles from the roads than the truck lanes.”
Since the new truck lanes will be available for big rig drivers to use at no cost, the trucking industry has offered no opposition to the mid-state truck lanes.
“We’re supportive of it, primarily because it’s not toll-funded,” said Darrin Roth, vice president of highway policy for American Trucking Association. ” Obviously there is nothing to lose for the trucking industry and everything to gain from having additional capacity.”
Freight traffic to triple
So why Georgia, and why I-75?
The Atlanta region has the seventh-highest freight volume among major U.S. markets. And the segment connecting Macon and Atlanta is a key artery for freight trucks carrying goods from the port of Savannah to the rest of the country.
As jammed up as the corridor can get now, it’s expected to get worse as the port expands. Truck traffic is conservatively expected to double, and perhaps even triple. Car traffic will increase, too.
“Truck specific lanes? Please!” said Karl Bond, of Americus, who paused at a truck stop before heading to North Georgia for the day. “I normally drive a fairly small car, and when I’m changing lanes I feel like I’m going to get run over.”
Average daily traffic volumes for both cars and trucks along the route in 2012 varied from about 69,000 to 83,000 vehicles per day depending upon which county you’re in, according to a GDOT study. About one-fifth to one-quarter of those vehicles are trucks.
By 2040, traffic is projected to swell to about 82,000 to 100,000 cars and trucks per day. Up to two-fifths of them could be trucks.
Larry Soldan, a long-haul trucker from Austintown, Ohio, has been traveling around the country for 40 years. He said the portion of I-75 between Macon and Atlanta is one of the worst interstate corridors he has experienced.
“It’s got to be one of the busiest in the nation, if not the busiest,” Soldan said as he exited a truck stop in Jackson, bound for the port of Brunswick.
Jessica Massey, who lives in Jackson, was puffing on a cigarette in a gazebo just outside the travel plaza. She said “it’s almost always super backed up on I-75.” Truck lanes would make her feel safer, she said.
Indeed, it’s hard to find anyone who drives on that stretch who wouldn’t like big rigs out of their the way.
The widening of I-75 is part of a forward-looking strategy developed by state transportation planners to improve the flow of goods coming from the port of Savannah. The state wants to reduce bottlenecks along I-16 and I-75, in anticipation of the Savannah Harbor expansion project and the larger ships soon to arrive via an expanded Panama Canal.
The truck lanes will go only in the northbound direction because the state is most concerned with getting cargo from the port to Atlanta and beyond, a GDOT spokeswoman said. The state may evaluate adding southbound truck lanes in the future.
Roberts, the state transportation planning director, said he believes I-75 between Macon and McDonough is the perfect area to test out the concept of truck-only lanes, because there is a lot of room in the median. The state won’t need to acquire much new land. It’s also a nearly 40 miles long, which has the potential to really demonstrate the impact of truck-only lanes, he said.
Several other major interstate improvements along the route from Savannah to Atlanta have already begun construction or are in the pipeline.
“This is about the last mile of connectivity when you are looking at the port,” he said. “All of these things are basically connecting the dots to Atlanta.”
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*Staff reports contributed to this article.