The state of Georgia, in an unprecedented move, is planning to build two northbound truck-only lanes paralleling a heavily travelled 40-mile stretch along Interstate 75 from Macon to McDonough, about 30 miles south of Atlanta.
The estimated $2 billion project would be funded from the proceeds of a 10-year, $10 billion transportation bill that Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law last September. The law calls for a six-cents-a-gallon increase in the state fuels tax and a series of new user fees, including a surcharge on large trucks registered with the state. No tolls are contemplated to pay for the proposed corridor, a move that will satisfy trucking interests that are opposed to the tolling of existing highways.
No state has pulled off a project of this magnitude, according to Robert Poole, cofounder of The Reason Foundation, a think tank. Truck-only lanes do exist, but they are comprised of so-called climbing lanes whose grades are too steep for heavy-duty trucks to safely maneuver. In the early 2000s, a group of private investors proposed to add dedicated truck lanes to Interstate 81 in Virginia, a major artery for truck traffic. Trucking interests defeated the proposal because it used toll roads to fund the work. A plan to reconstruct Interstate 70 across Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio with two truck-only lanes in both directions has been held up because the Missouri legislature has not approved a proposal to fund the reconstruction by imposing tolls on all travelers, which was the only way the project could be funded.
The Georgia proposal has not gone through the typical vetting steps, such as examining alternative approaches and getting public feedback. While there will likely be many questions about the project's viability, what isn't in doubt is that the 40-mile segment is already a congested artery and is likely to get more crowded due to the expected rise in domestic truck traffic and the increase in volumes at the Port of Savannah, the nation's fourth-busiest container port. Import cargoes headed to Atlanta and points north and west of the city must traverse the stretch of I-75 after leaving Interstate 16, which runs from the port.
In 2012, between 69,000 and 83,000 vehicles travelled over the segment each day, about 20 to 25 percent of them trucks, according to a March 30 online report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution citing Georgia Department of Transportation data. By 2020, the volume will escalate to 82,000 to 100,000 vehicles a day—about 40 percent of them trucks, according to the public data.
In a statement yesterday, Deal's office said the project would shave 40 percent from commuting times on the stretch by 2030, as trucks would no longer be commingled with motorist traffic.
Poole said that although the corridor's freight profile makes it a good choice for the project, there's a risk in moving forward before truck volumes are high enough to justify dedicated lanes. He also said there may be public backlash over the truck lanes being effectively given to the truckers for free, while proposed interstate highway widenings in the metro Atlanta area will be developed at huge public expense.
"Those factors would argue for doing this project as a long-term public-private partnership, with significant risks assigned to the public partner and tolls charged to the truckers using the dedicated lanes," Poole said. As a sweetener, the state could rebate to truckers the portion of the diesel tax they pay for driving the 40 miles, so they would pay only the toll as their user fee, he added.
A Federal Highway Administration study last year identified 11 major Interstate corridors where trucks would account for 40 percent of total traffic by 2040. Most of those corridors run through multiple states.