Lucas: Revamping I-16/I-75 interchange vital

mlee@macon.comFebruary 10, 2013 

ATLANTA -- State plans for financing road improvements haven’t worked out so far for the interchange of interstates 16 and 75 in Macon, and there’s little activity so far this year at the state Capitol to change that.

Maintenance is ongoing on I-16, a busy corridor for heavy trucks taking cargo in and out of the Port of Savannah. And one senator this week said the interchange where the two interstates come together near downtown is dangerous.

“My biggest fear has always been on (the interchange) something like Dublin happening,” said state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, referring to Wednesday’s I-16 pileup in Laurens County that involved 27 vehicles and killed four people.

“There’s no place to jump off, there’s no place to go” he said. There are no shoulders along the interchange.

But adding more, wider lanes there is difficult because the road is squeezed among two graveyards, a railroad, Macon’s Pleasant Hill neighborhood and the Ocmulgee River.

“We just need to do it,” Lucas said.

Bibb and 10 nearby counties voted down a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax last year that would have financed dozens of road projects over 10 years worth $800 million, including a revamp of the interchange from I-75 at Hardeman Avenue to I-16 at Spring Street and other segments.

Turning down the tax, Lucas said, “hurt us when it comes to money.”

The sales tax might have been a faster route than relying on the Macon Area Transportation Study’s plan. The area’s official transportation planning agency is looking to finance the interchange work using half of the state transportation dollars it expects to receive through 2040.

Georgia’s main source of state road building and maintenance money is a 1 percent tax on fuel. But gasoline sales are no longer rising much, and the Georgia Department of Transportation says the income is less than what they need.

Regional penny tax proposals, known as transportation special local option sales taxes, were the Legislature’s stab at gathering new, big cash for expensive transportation projects.

Most groups of counties in Georgia, like Bibb and its neighbors, rejected that idea.

About one-third of the way through the annual state legislative session, there’s no major proposal to revisit the need for road cash.

And more traffic may be coming to the interchange.

About 9,000 cargo trucks travel I-16 through Macon daily, about 11 percent of all traffic on that interstate, according to 2011 state DOT numbers. If the Port of Savannah is deepened, as Gov. Nathan Deal and others want, cargo volume will rise. There are plans under way to keep that cargo off the interstates.

Cargo rail lines already connect Savannah and Macon, and a new spur on the Norfolk Southern line in McIntyre roughly doubled the railroad’s capacity, said state Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch.

Epps said the railroad is ready to handle the jump in cargo traffic that will come if the Port of Savannah is deepened.

“We forecast about 20 percent of our activity today moves via rail versus road,” Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Curtis Foltz said at a December conference for legislators. “We think that will grow to 25 to 27 percent over time. So as our business grows, a higher percent is going to ship via rail.”

That shift from road to rail, Foltz said, is part of the Savannah harbor’s long-term strategy.

Meanwhile, Epps said the maintenance work on I-16 is “on target.”

“We had a massive rehab job on I-16 last year ... and that work is continuing,” he said.

Epps also has started moving a bill that would tweak some of the rules about how federal transportation money is divvied among state projects.

His House Bill 202 would be “a better funding mechanism” that would allow counties to fund projects that are not near interstates.

Epps’ colleagues on the state House Transportation Committee gave their unanimous approval Thursday.

Now the bill is in the House Rules committee awaiting approval for a full floor vote.

To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail her at mlee@macon.com

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