Truck-only lanes – typically used for short distances to ease traffic bottlenecks – are about to go on steroids.

Georgia plans to build two lanes limited to trucks along 38 miles of Interstate 75, a heavily travelled freight corridor south of Atlanta. It will be the largest truck-only project in the nation and is expected to cost $2 billion. When the roadway is completed – expected in 2030 – the state may consider adding additional truck-only lanes in the opposite direction.

The project is ambitious, said Robert Poole, a transportation expert and co-founder of The Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. Truck-only lanes are usually reserved for short distances, such as moving heavy vehicles out of the way of faster car traffic climbing hills.

No state has attempted what Georgia is doing without utilizing tolling or public-private highway building partnerships as a way to pay for the truck-only lanes, he said.

“What the Georgia Department of Transportation is proposing is the only serious plan with a funding source,” Poole said.

Such lanes, in one of the most congested sections of the nation for freight, are badly needed, according to the trucking industry.

“The Port of Savannah is expected to grow pretty substantially and generate a lot of traffic along the I-75 corridor, so yes, it might make sense to add truck-only lanes there,” said Darrin Roth, vice president of highway policy for the American Trucking Associations.

Trucks drive on I-75 southbound in Georgia as crews work on building center express lanes.

Trucks drive on I-75 southbound in Georgia as DOT crews work on building center express lanes. (Photo: Brian Hadden/Trucks.com)

Traffic congestion is clogging the delivery of goods nationwide. The American Transport Research Institute estimates that traffic delays cost the trucking industry about $50 billion annually.

“There are going to be 11 major corridors that are going to be exploding if something isn’t done by 2040,” Poole said. Truck traffic is expected to rise 40 percent or more along some corridors by 2040, Poole said.

More than 100 interchanges are major bottlenecks and will need redesign and reconstruction in the next 20 years, according to Poole. Approximately 200 corridors need additional lanes to cope with current and projected traffic, he said.

But because most of those corridors run through multiple states, a Georgia-style solution won’t work.

How to cope with traffic congestion caused by trucks is a thorny issue for transportation regulators.

Florida, for example, has struggled to steer truck traffic onto the Florida Turnpike, a toll road, which runs parallel to I-95. However, the initiative had unintended consequences. Truckers didn’t want to pay the toll.

“It just doesn’t make financial sense for trucking companies,” Roth said.

So they bailed and started jamming I-95 that paralleled the turnpike.

Elsewhere, Texas traffic officials tried to steer trucks off I-35 in a busy corridor between Austin and San Antonio and onto the toll road, but with little success.

“The state had to lower the tolls and more trucks did use the toll roads, but then they raised the tolls again and the truckers left,” he said.

Trucking interests generally support truck-only lanes, as long as they are toll-free.

“Yes, we support truck-only lanes, but it depends on how it’s funded,” said Norita Taylor, spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents more than 150,000 drivers.

The trade group opposes toll roads built through public-private highway partnerships and then adding tolls to existing roads, Taylor said.

Indeed, lobbying by the trucking industry killed an $8-billion proposal to add toll truck lanes along I-81 in Virginia, Poole said. A tolling proposal to build truck-only lanes along I-70 has also stalled.

The I-70 proposal, with dedicated truck-only lanes, would affect four states, including Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Missouri. But only Missouri has the federal permits required to launch such a project.

Federal law prohibits tolling on existing highways, but Congress created a pilot program that would allow it in Missouri, Virginia and North Carolina.

Despite the exemptions, none of the legislatures in the three states has given approval to move forward with tolling.

Even without the specter of tolls roads, some question whether it makes sense for Georgia to spend $2 billion on thoroughfares just for trucks.

Cathy Morrow Roberson, a consultant who heads Logistics & Trends, did a double take when she learned of the Georgia Department of Transportation project.

It “makes no sense,” Roberson said, citing the Georgia Port Authority’s recently announced $24-million plan to build an inland facility, the Appalachian Regional Port, in Chatsworth, Ga. The inland port is scheduled to open in 2018.

Funding for the inland port project is a public-private partnership involving Georgia, which will pay $10 million; the Georgia Port Authority, which will pay $7.5 million; the CSX Railroad, which will pay $5 million; and Murray County, which will pay $1 million.

The inland port, which will sit along U.S. 41, will also have access to I-75, where the truck-only lanes are proposed to be built.

“I know the goal of the Georgia Port Authority is to ease congestion within the state and in surrounding states, as well,” Roberson said. “When you have GDOT coming out with this plan and the Georgia Port Authority coming out with the strategy of building an inland port, it doesn’t appear they got together to discuss this.”