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Georgia Transportation Officials Plan To Build A $1.8 Billion Truck-Only Highway


Georgia transportation officials are planning what they say would be the country's first highway just for trucks - just trucks. No cars allowed. The toll-free road would stretch for about 40 miles from Atlanta south to Macon. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Tasnim Shamma has details.

TASNIM SHAMMA, BYLINE: Across the country, truck traffic is way up. And it's only expected to get worse. One proposal for improving both congestion and safety is to separate the cars from the trucks. Afori Pugh drives one of those trucks. And when he's not releasing his gospel rap albums, you'll find Pugh inside his white flatbed truck. The vinyl seats sink when you sit. His truck is meant for long drives. He usually hauls about 20,000 pounds of steel beams to construction sites. While his job takes him all over the country, every month he drives two hours from Atlanta to Macon and back.

AFORI PUGH: You have a lot of people flipping the bird, cussing you out, you know? But you just have to be patient and understand that they don't understand this industry.

SHAMMA: He says when motorists cut in front of him to get by, there's hardly any room for error. Most trucks going 65 miles per hour need at least 500 feet to come to a full stop.

PUGH: They don't understand how much danger they're in just by getting in front of you, slamming on brakes.

SHAMMA: The most recent federal numbers show that more than 4,000 people died in crashes involving large trucks in 2016. And safety is the main reason Georgia officials want to build a toll-free, truck-only highway through the middle of the state. Congestion is the second reason. Georgia officials expect truck traffic to double by 2040. This is not a new idea. States like California have truck-only lanes, though sometimes cars are allowed on them. But they don't have entire dedicated truck highways. Georgia transportation official John Hibbard says this goes one step further.

JOHN HIBBARD: It would be the first of its kind in the United States, really, to have a lane or some part of a roadway dedicated exclusively to trucks. And it would not be a tolled roadway, but it would be free for trucks to use.

SHAMMA: But the Georgia project is expensive - nearly $2 billion. And while the state hopes to get some funding from the Trump administration's infrastructure plan, it does have money to move forward. That's in part because of a gas tax passed in 2015 aimed at transportation projects. Georgia also wants to attract tech companies to test out self-driving trucks and new technology like platooning. Platooning is when one self-driving truck leads a line of trucks following behind it, kind of like ants connected by an invisible string. Paul Lewis doesn't think that's a good reason to spend $2 billion, though. He's with the D.C.-based think tank The Eno Center for Transportation.

PAUL LEWIS: I get the sense that it's a bad investment to put all your chips into that right now. States and cities should put in pilot programs and test it out to see how it would work before they go and make - invest hundreds of millions of dollars in something that hasn't quite proven itself.

SHAMMA: But Mike Golias disagrees. He teaches transportation at the University of Memphis. And he says the timing for this seems right.

MIKE GOLIAS: Everybody buys online, and they want their stuff delivered to them two days later. Everybody knows about Amazon. Everybody knows what Amazon is doing. So now it has become more obvious to people that we need to pay attention to freight.

SHAMMA: Golias hopes other states will follow Georgia's lead both in acknowledging the surge in truck traffic and in trying to separate trucks from cars. For NPR News, I'm Tasnim Shamma in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUNTONE'S "PASSING BY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tasnim Shamma joined WABE 90.1 FM as a reporter in November 2014. She comes to Atlanta from Charlotte, where she spent more than two years at the NPR member station WFAE.
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