Where do we go for a concert, or a Broadway play, or to watch a professional sports team, or for fine dining or shopping from a wide variety of choices? For many of us, the answer is Atlanta. And yet, everytime we head north, no matter what day or time, we’re taking a gamble that the truck traffic will be light and there won’t be any traffic jams going up or coming back.
Now imagine what that will be like in two or three years, when the Port of Savannah widening and deepening project is completed and larger freighters carrying more and more tractor-trailer loads start docking, and all those trucks head to Atlanta. The state is estimating that freight traffic to and from Atlanta will double or triple as importers bring in their goods and exporters ship theirs out. Your odds of making it to and from Atlanta smoothly will decrease greatly.
Why do all the trucks go to Atlanta? Because if their loads are going north or west, there is not another four-lane route. Truckers have to drive to Atlanta and drive around on I-285 to get to I-85 to go to Montgomery, I-20 to go to Birmingham, and I-75 north to get to Chattanooga.
But all that traffic, and all that congestion, would change for the better if the state would do one thing: build the four-lane Georgia Export/Import Highway from Macon to LaGrange and U. S. 27.
Lanier Boatwright and Robert Hiett of the Three Rivers Regional Commission explained that to Chamber members at the Thomaston-Upson Chamber of Commerce Sun’s Up on Upson Business Breakfast, sponsored by Trennis Dumas State Farm Insurance Agency and held February 5 at Upson Regional Medical Center.
Boatwright said officials from Troup, Pike, Meriwether, Upson, Monroe and Bibb counties came together nine years ago, in 2005, to develop the idea of a need for such a freight corridor with the KIA plant just in the planning stages, and have been soliciting state and federal officials ever since. But Boatwright said there have been some bumps in the road.
“We worked on it and got a study grant put into Congress,” said Boatwright. “In 2008, the parties changed. The incoming party said ‘That’s the old party’s project’ and threw it out.
“Nevertheless, we’ve continued to work on this and have built a lot of support for it. About a year ago, we had another meeting of all the local governments and decided that we were going to really step it up and start marketing this project.
“We’ve asked and received some state level reports,” continued Boatwright. “These are studies that have been quite positive about what we’re trying to do. We’ve had some really significant things happen because of our marketing efforts. We pushed for this highway to become a four-lane highway, but also to be included in the truck studies. We were told by our congressman and the governor-elect that if the truck study showed the need for this, that they would be supportive. So we had an early-on commitment from Nathan Deal and Congressman Westmoreland. This truck study came out in a bypass study. This elevated the need for this highway to be put in as a designated freight corridor by the Department of Transportation.”
Boatwright said they have used the existing route, which is Highway 74/109, to connect from Macon to LaGrange and U. S. 27. He said this is important because U. S. 27 has been almost completely four-laned between Tennesssee and Florida, and when the four-laning below Columbus is completed, freight haulers will have a north/south corridor from Florida to Chattanooga that completely bypasses the metro Atlanta area.
Three Rivers Regional Commission and the Middle Georgia Regional Commission have been pushing for the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) to do an engineering study of the proposal in order to determine how to build it and what it will cost. Robert Hiett said one study has already shown that the cost will be minimal compared to the economic impact.
“On the list of highway and freight corridor projects ranked for possible implementation in the future, if you rank them by return on investment, the LaGrange to Macon corridor ranks far higher than all the rest of the projects.,” said Hiett. “It has an estimated cost of $559 million, and an estimated return on investment of $11.3 billion.
“A lot of our freight travels on the interstates, mainly because it doesn’t have a lot of non-interstate roads that connect to and go to. The state right now is focused on truck traffic through Atlanta. A lot of our freight does go through Atlanta, but the problem is almost all the traffic has to go through the Atlanta area because it doesn’t have any reasonable detours to date.
A freight study looked at two Atlanta bypasses. One was a little shorter, but it linked up in the Atlanta area, and the other one was this corridor. When you run Savannah to Macon to LaGrange and U. S. 27, you create an affordable bypass that you simply can’t do in the Atlanta area because of costs. There is a need to get between interstates and get around Atlanta.
“Anybody who drives through Atlanta knows it’s like playing the lottery,” added Hiett. “If you think about businesses that have just-in-time inventory, they live and die on deliveries. When the supplies don’t get to the factory, the factory is idle and workers go home. Some people get paid, some people don’t. That’s the world we live in today. And if the freight is late, you don’t get paid. So freight logistics is important.
“All this says we need to do something, not just at the state level, but regionally, to support these businesses and create a better economic environment. These folks, both exporters and importers, have to be able to move their product. They can’t do that today, and they’ll have a hard time doing it in the future if we can’t look outside the Atlanta area to do bigger projects.”
Hiett predicted that if something isn’t done to get the state started on a study soon, it may be to late when they do start.
“If we don’t do anything, they won’t even start studying this until 2031 to 2040. The Port of Savannah will be improved in a couple of years. Not long after that, freight is going to start increasing, but they’re not going to look at any real alternative for two decades. That’s why we need to get this done. It is a two to three-year study, and if we can get it done now, and it raises enough people’s interest, you can put together the financing to get it built.”
Boartwright said that GDOT keeps saying they don’t have the money to build the corridor, but he added they aren’t asking that it be built immediately, but just that a study be done. He added that local citizens can help by contacting their state legislators and the governor and letting them know that the Georgia Export/Import Highway needed.
Three Rivers has set up a website to help citizens do that. It is at www.georgiasexportimporthighway. The website has information on the project , contact information for the state legislators, the governor, and his planning director for transportation, and a sample letter to use as is, change as needed, and sign and send.
Larry Stanford may be reached at 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @LarryStanford7.