Georgia pitches safer travel with $2 billion Interstate 75 project

Georgia is trying to deal with a port of Savannah that’s expanding to handle more cargo and a state population that’s increasing by pitching a $2 bilion truck-only lanes project.
Georgia is trying to deal with a port of Savannah that’s expanding to handle more cargo and a state population that’s increasing by pitching a $2 bilion truck-only lanes project.

The highway view from Macon north will look like nothing else in the country under a state transportation plan to build at least 38 miles of separate truck lanes costing $2.06 billion.

While plenty of states have studied separate no-toll, truck-only lanes, Georgia’s plan would put it much farther down an unexplored road than other states.

Georgia is trying to deal with a port of Savannah that’s expanding to handle more cargo and a state population that’s increasing. Both of those things mean more people — and freight — on roads. Earlier this year, Gov. Nathan Deal announced 11 major new projects meant to help cope.

Not that the truck lanes would get from zero to done anytime soon. The state has yet to decide how to schedule the big initiatives, but it should start sometime in the next 10 years, Georgia Department of Transportation Planning Director Jay Roberts said.

“This is as much about congestion relief in the (general purpose) lanes and safety as it is truck lanes,” Roberts said. “When you take your semis out of the general purpose lane and put them in barrier-separated lanes, your roads are going to become safer, but you’re also relieving that congestion in those lanes.”

Trucks would hop on the pair of northbound-only lanes — separated from other vehicles by a barrier — starting at Interstate 475 and running on the inside median of Interstate 75 at least as far as Ga. 155 in McDonough. Roberts said GDOT is looking to take the lanes all the way up to Interstate 675 if possible.

To back his case, Roberts pointed to a 2016 study, which GDOT commissioned, estimating that a completed plan by 2030 would reduce vehicle hour delays by 40 percent on that corridor.

The agency is still figuring out more details, such as deciding if the lanes would be mandatory for all through trucks and where to put truck exits. Roberts said the plan does not include allowing heavier or longer trucks.

The cash would come from Georgia’s gas tax and possibly federal funds, too, he said.

The lanes would be the first of their kind on a large scale, said Ed Crowell, president of the Georgia Motor Trucking Association.

The truck traffic on that corridor will always be fairly significant, Crowell said. He also said a new build could help accommodate emerging technologies, such as trucks that communicate with each other to keep to a safe following distance, or road sensors that broadcast information about problems like ice.

States from the East Coast to the West have studied truck-only lanes, but there are only a few limited stretches of non-tolled, barrier-separated lanes.

A 2008 GDOT report slammed brakes on the idea of a system of truck-only lanes on metro Atlanta’s freeways, saying it was a costly plan that would primarily benefit the small number of trucks that travel during rush hours. It suggested, though, that on I-75 from Chattanooga to Macon, truck-only lanes had “preliminary merit.”

But Neill Herring, an environmental lobbyist who’s been working on issues including Georgia transportation since 1989, said the truck lanes are a poor way to spend $2.06 billion.

“It just doesn’t seem thought out at all,” Herring said. “There’s definitely a need to increase capacity on that corridor, but the place they need to increase capacity is north of there, between McDonough and Atlanta. That’s where all the jams take place.”

Besides that, he said, the time savings for an individual truck journey are not large in the scheme of things — measured in minutes, not hours.

When it comes to cargo, the drive from Savannah to Atlanta is already quicker than a parallel rail journey. On a truck, cargo moves on demand from door to door soon as a driver can pick it up. Via rail, customers have to plan around the train schedule and still need trucks to get cargo to and from rail yards.

Herring said he’d rather see money spent on iron than pavement. Passenger rail “would be a great place to get additional capacity if you can get cars off the road,” he said.

The Georgia Transportation Alliance, a major Georgia business lobby, has been urging the state to increase transportation capacity. Its executive director, Seth Millican, praised truck-only lanes as an innovative idea, though only part of a bigger picture.

“We need to be doing other things as well. It is absolutely critical that we start looking at freight rail and capacity there,” Millican said. “There’s no way, the right of way doesn’t exist, for us to build enough roads to handle all those containers” of cargo, he said.

Norfolk Southern, a major state railroad, already runs cargo trains that can reach 10,000 feet long between Atlanta, Macon and Savannah. Jeff Heller, the company’s vice president for intermodal and automotive, said the railroad is bullish enough on the predictions of port growth that it is indeed already aiming to get more out of its lines by building more new sidings between Savannah and Atlanta where trains can pass each other.

As for the truck lanes, GDOT will seek public input on some of the design and policy questions, but there’s no date yet set for when that will start.

Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee