A report by state auditors says that Georgia’s transportation agency is not using the best data-driven practices before it decides on certain big initiatives, such as a $2 billion interstate project that will start near Macon.
But the director of planning for the Georgia Department of Transportation is pushing back on the report. Jay Roberts says there’s an exhaustive review of proposed major projects, including truck-only lanes to be built along Interstate 75 north of Macon.
The report published late last month says that GDOT’s planning division has a way to score projects, but that it is not used to decide which projects to select and program.
“Instead, projects go through an informal review process,” auditors wrote. They also wrote that planning studies and analyses are sometimes conducted, and the amount of information gathered on each one can vary.
There were no findings of impropriety in the report.
Auditors cited the truck lanes project, among others. Gov. Nathan Deal announced that project last year as one of several major road initiatives that will be bankrolled in part by a recent change in the gas tax that is raising hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation.
The two toll-free, truck-only northbound lanes would start at Interstate 475 and run on the inside median of Interstate 75 at least as far as Ga. 155 in McDonough. GDOT is looking at taking the lanes all the way up to Interstate 675.
Auditors wrote that the project was programmed “without clear indication that the project is a justified investment.” Auditors acknowledged a decade-old study that suggested the truck lanes might be a worthwhile project. But they also questioned the rigor of that study, as well as another study published after the project was announced.
But Roberts said that group of big builds the governor announced — known as the Major Mobility Investment Program — are important projects that will move the needle for Georgia’s transportation network.
“These MMIP projects were identified as the result of major study and analysis, and the truck-only lane project was no different,” Roberts said in a written statement.
In its written response to auditors, GDOT defended the system it uses to prioritize projects. Roberts said that GDOT uses many data points to evaluate projects, such as fatality reduction.
He also said that truck-only lanes have been studied by both the federal government and by Georgia.
“Due to expansion of the Port (of Savannah) and increase in truck traffic, the department decided that barrier-separated lanes both increased safety and would reduce congestion by freeing up general purpose lanes,” Roberts wrote.
GDOT points to the 2016 consultant’s report that says the construction would result in a 40 percent reduction in vehicle delays in the corridor.
But state auditors said that study did not put a dollar amount on the potential costs and benefits.
Auditors also said they asked local leaders — city and county officials — if they think political influence plays a part in which major projects get chosen.
Most of the ones who responded — 57 percent — said they think politics is a moderate or major factor in such decisions.
Roberts countered that sometimes the need for projects is brought to GDOT’s attention by elected officials, but that each project is carefully evaluated.
As for the truck lanes, they are set to be contracted sometime in the next decade, but no date has yet been set.
Toll-free, truck-only lanes are hard to come by anywhere in the country.
Some of the lawmakers who represent the areas on both sides of Interstate 75 north of Macon do have a few questions about the uncommon idea.
For one, it’s possible that not every exit along the 38-mile stretch would be open to trucks.
“That would be my initial concern on its face, that they would be picking and choosing which exits need to be a truck exit and which do not,” said state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson.
For the businesses along Interstate 75, the loss of trucking customers could be costly.
But Jones also said he’s confident in GDOT and is sure they’re exploring options.
State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, said that there’s no doubt that there is significant truck traffic on Interstate 75 northbound.
“But I sure wish we would wait a little while now that the toll lanes (north of McDonough) are finished to see if that helps relieve some congestion,” he said.
Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee