Sympathy for the 18 Wheeler

Atlanta has a traffic problem. And don’t boo me for stating the obvious. My concern is not for the suburbanites who are delayed an extra half hour on their commutes home. Georgia’s economy is largely dependent on another type of traveler, albeit an unpopular one. This is a driver who might have forced you into an emergency lane when you were coming down the exit ramp or ran you into the median while merging lanes. Yes, the 18 wheeler trucker is who I refer to, and before the compact-driving Davids lose all human sympathy for the proverbial Goliaths of the interstates, take a moment and consider why we might want to keep them around.

Our lives would not be nearly what they are without truckers. The containers on the backs of semi-trailers contain everything we cherish in metro Atlanta—the construction materials that have built our suburbs, the food that fills the shelves of our Krogers, the Amazon purchases that keep us waiting by the mailbox, etc. And it doesn’t stop there. Atlanta’s tremendous economic growth has also been fueled by freight trucks. With Hartsfield Jackson International Airport and the Port of Savannah providing entry points to regional markets, Atlanta has become the largest hub in the southeast for moving and storing goods. It has the seventh-highest freight volume in the country, with nearly 150 million tons of freight, 75 percent of which comes by truck, moving through the city each year. Freight-dependent industries account for a whopping $200 billion in output, which is nearly 40 percent of metro Atlanta’s GDP, and they support 800,000 jobs in the area.

Many of the trucks are traveling to warehouses and distribution centers that are located near interstate highways. When high density freight traffic combines with high density commuter traffic, bottlenecks arise and cause a number of problems including more collisions and less reliable delivery times. Competitive firms value precision above all else, especially when a truck’s delivery is time sensitive. They are likely to locate in areas where the delivery time is low and predictable.

With globalization, expanding e-commerce, and the widening of the Panama Canal (which allows larger ships to come up the east coast), there is ample opportunity for Georgia to draw in companies who want to move goods through the Port of Savannah and into Atlanta. However, traffic bottlenecks, including those on I-75 South, both directions on I-20, and the upper half of I-285, might prove problematic. Slowdowns in these areas could make Atlanta a less attractive business location, especially if the city does not plan for more growth over the next two decades. By 2040, there will be twice as many freight hauling trucks on metro Atlanta roads and traffic is expected to increase by 76 percent.

To hedge against the impending freight congestion, the Georgia Ports Authority has begun investing in inland ports, which are way stations that allow goods to avoid traveling through Atlanta traffic. They recently announced that $19.7 million will be spent on the Appalachian Regional Port in Chatsworth, Georgia near Chattanooga. The ARP will be connected to the Port of Savannah by rail. CSX Transportation will move cargo to and from Savannah without having to rely on Atlanta’s road system. The GPA estimates that the ARP will offset 350 truck miles per container, which is about 18 million miles of truck miles per year. It will begin operating in 2018.

The ARP is part of GPA’s Network Georgia initiative, a $1.4 billion plan which aims to “create a web of rail connections that will make access to the [Port of Savannah] easy and convenient.” An inland port in Cordele was connected to the Port of Savannah in 2013, opening up access to Alabama markets. The GPA eventually wants to create enough inland ports so that the Port of Savannah is connected to cities throughout Georgia, opening access to markets in Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Locations for additional north Georgia inland ports will be particularly important because they will stem the tide of trucks taking I-75 through Atlanta.

Installing truck-only lanes on interstates is another idea for reducing congestion that has become popular in Georgia as of late. Governor Deal and the Georgia Department of Transportation are already moving forward with a plan to add 40 miles of truck-only lanes on I-75 North between Macon and McDonough. The project will cost over $2 billion, with most of the funds coming from revenues raised by HB 170, the transportation funding bill passed by the General Assembly in 2015.

The project’s success is questionable though. No other state has tried such an ambitious truck-only lane project and it would be twice as expensive as the costliest Georgia road project to date. There are critics on all fronts saying that the project has not been appropriately researched, that it gives special favors to the trucking industry, and that a commuter train from Macon to Atlanta could be built for the same cost and would do a better job of alleviating traffic. Still there are no signs that the project is slowing down. If successful, truck-only lanes could become standard issue in Atlanta’s bottleneck areas.

The Atlanta Regional Commission recently updated its 2008 Freight Mobility Plan to account for the expected increase in freight traffic. It recommends that Georgia spend $1.8 billion to fix traffic bottlenecks, a relatively small cost compared to the $200 billion that the freight industry brings into the Atlanta region each year. Whether it is inland ports, truck-only lanes, or other ideas like widening highways and adding toll express lanes, Georgia has a strong interest in getting 18 wheelers out of traffic.

Funding these solutions is a win-win situation. Nobody likes losing businesses to states with better transportation networks and nobody, not even truckers, likes sitting in traffic. The plight of truckers does not always elicit sympathy from America’s driving public, but they are an essential part of an integrated economy that makes all of us better off. So please, throw aside your prejudices and, next time the truckers ask, give them more of your tax dollars. Believe it or not, they’ve earned it.


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