Georgia Wants To Build Truck-Only Highway, But Is It Worth It?

Afori Pugh drives his flatbed truck from metro Atlanta to Macon every few weeks and feels the truck-only highway would make the interstate safer for truckers like him.

Tasnim Shamma / WABE

The Georgia Department of Transportation is working on building a separate highway for trucks only: No cars allowed. It’d be the first highway of its kind in the United States, stretching 40 miles from metro Atlanta to Macon.

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Atlanta-area truckers and industry groups said they’re excited, but the estimated cost is raising eyebrows.

Atlanta To Macon

Truck driver Afori Pugh said motorists cut in front of him to get by, with hardly any margin for error. “They don’t understand how much danger they’re in just by getting in front of you slamming on brakes.” He supports the truck-only lanes in Georgia. (Tasnim Shama/WABE)

In the back of his white flatbed truck, Afori Pugh usually has 20,000 pounds of construction materials like steel.

Every few weeks, Pugh drives two hours from Marietta to Macon. He said it can be rough.

“You have a lot of people flipping the bird, cussing you out,” Pugh said. “But you just have to be patient and understand that they don’t understand this industry.”

He said when motorists cut in front of him to get by, there’s hardly any margin for error.

“They don’t understand how much danger they’re in just by getting in front of you slamming on brakes,” Pugh said.

Safety Concerns

There were 4,317 people who died in crashes involving large trucks in 2016, according to the most recent federal statistics available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

It’s why Pugh’s excited about the state’s idea to build a highway for commercial vehicles. It would be two lanes, toll-free and would be northbound from McDonough in central Henry County to Macon.

“I think it’s going to unclog a lot of the traffic,” Pugh said. “Because these trucks are huge, we can’t move as fast as other people. They do not want to let you over.”

Congestion Relief

GDOT estimates trucks carry 75 percent of cargo in the state. GDOT also expects truck traffic will double by 2040. The truck-only lanes have been proposed as a solution to reducing congestion for drivers of noncommercial vehicles on Georgia interstates. GDOT’s study projects the truck-only lanes will reduce delays on Interstate 75 North by 40 percent.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal praised the truck-only highway during a Georgia Transportation Alliance meeting, calling it “an important part of what our future transportation system should and will look like.”

GDOT Operations Director John Hibbard said it would be the first of its kind in the U.S.

“Not simply identifying lanes saying that this right lane is for trucks, it is its own separate roadway,” Hibbard said.

The roadway would even have its own exits and entrances.

GDOT said it expects to select a general engineering consultant by the end of 2018. The consultant is expected to manage project development and will ask for public input during the environmental process.

High Cost

The Georgia Department of Transportation estimates that trucks carry 75 percent of cargo in the state. GDOT also expects truck traffic will double by 2040. (Tasnim Shama/WABE)

The project is estimated to cost $1.8 billion.

GDOT will ask for federal funds, but if the government doesn’t come through, Gov. Deal said the project can still move forward with state money, specifically because of the state’s Transportation Funding Act, passed in 2015. The act is paid for by an increase in fuel taxes.

But critics said the high cost is troubling.

Matt Casale is a transportation analyst with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. His team ranked Georgia’s truck-only lanes among the worst highway proposals in the country in 2017.

“It’s really a gamble with the taxpayers’ money,” Casale said. “It’s a lot of taxpayer money, and it’s a lot of money to spend on something that we don’t know is going to work.

Self-Driving Technology

GDOT’s study aside from safety improvements and congestion relief, Hibbard said it will be the state’s testing ground for self-driving truck technology “that might enable trucks to move more efficiently in platooned situations.”

Platooning is when one self-driving truck is in the front and there’s a line of trucks following behind it, which could look a bit like ants connected by an invisible string.

And here again, national policy experts aren’t convinced states should spend millions — or in Georgia’s case, a couple billion — to test infrastructure for self-driving trucks.

“I get the sense that it’s a bad investment to put all your chips into that right now in something that hasn’t quite proven itself,” Lewis said.

Better Roads

Paul Lewis is vice president of policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, D.C. He said what technology firms testing autonomous vehicles want most of all is just better roads.

“The No. 1 thing that state and local governments can do to help facilitate self-driving technology is to stripe roadways, fill in potholes and improve signage,” Lewis said.

Atlanta trucker Pugh is not a fan of self-driving trucks, partly because he could lose his job.

But also because he thinks it may be a safety issue.

“We have computers malfunction all the time,” Pugh said. “So what happens if this truck malfunctions? I think it’s a horrible idea.”

But he is a fan of Georgia building truck-only lanes. Construction on the truck-only highway is expected to begin in 2025.

This truck-only project is just one of 11 new projects under what the state calls the Major Mobility Investment Program.

By 2030, GDOT plans to build more than 300 miles of new lanes.