SAVANNAH — The growth in the Savannah ports and “Florida flight” are adding to the population ranks in Effingham County and in turn to the number of vehicles of the roads, state lawmakers were told Wednesday afternoon.
County commission Chairwoman Verna Phillips, in addressing a joint state House-Senate committee on transportation funding hearing at the Coastal Georgia Center, said she understood that Effingham isn’t the only community in need of roads.
“You’ve heard build it, and they will come?” she said. “Well, they have. The port is not waiting for anybody. They’re growing.”
Phillips said Effingham’s population has risen more than 30 percent in six years, “and we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.”
She related the tale of one her neighbors, who has moved from Florida because of the astronomical insurance premiums.
“The cost is prohibitive in Florida,” she said, adding her family also has experience with Florida’s rising rates. “And where better to live than Effingham County in Georgia?”
Phillips also told lawmakers of the massive gridlock that is Highway 21 through western Chatham and southern Effingham. But on her way to Athens on 21, she was on a four-lane highway with little traffic. She also recounted a similar experience on Highway 82, the state Department of Transportation’s Corridor Z, from Waycross to Albany.
“It’s a gorgeous, beautiful highway, and it was only me on it,” she said.
DOT Assistant Commissioner Buddy Gratton said it wasn’t true his department is sitting on a pile of money it cannot spend.
Even though revenues have increased, so have costs and they are outstripping the money the DOT takes in. Georgia’s population has increased by 80 percent since 1975, but only 15 percent more capacity in roads has been added in that time. Plus, the average age of the state’s bridges is 40 years old.
“Everybody’s fighting for the same nickel,” Gratton said, adding the tussle for more funding goes on within the DOT itself. “The needs are too great and the costs are too great.”
The DOT has $160 billion in long-range projects, which is eight years worth of projects, according to Gratton. And there is continuous stream of requests for work.
“Everybody wants dedicated truck lanes,” Gratton said. “But how are they going to be paid for?”
Georgia Ports Authority external affairs director Robert Morris detailed plans for the “Last Mile,” a set of road improvements leading into the port to help get cargo in and out faster, including an extension of the Jimmy Deloach Parkway.
“That’s the 10-ton gorilla,” he said. “This is probably the largest Last Mile project that can bring so much economic development to Georgia.”
Morris pointed out to the lawmakers that Jimmy Deloach ends at a state highway — Highway 21 — that is unable to handle the capacity it has now. He noted the traffic jams of two to three miles along 21.
“It is at a critical stage right now,” he said. “Jimmy Deloach Parkway must be completed and completed quickly.”
The extension, which would be 2.8 miles, would connect Jimmy Deloach to I-95 and could take seven to eight years to build. Meanwhile, Morris said, the Target and IKEA import distribution centers along Highway 21 are expected to add 300,000 trucks each year to the traffic count.
“Roadway safety is a major concern for us,” he said, “with so many trucks coming in and out and not having capacity for them.”
Craig Lesser, now the managing director of law firm McKenna, Long and Aldridge and former director of the state’s economic development department, said the state is “on an economic development roll” with the announcement last year of automaker Kia opening a plant in West Point and of Gulfstream’s expansion.
“That’s a huge investment in coastal Georgia,” he said.
Lesser also reiterated Gov. Sonny Perdue’s notion that the state is the “corner store” of the Southeast.
“Georgia is, by the grace of God, in a unique position in the country,” he said. “We market our state as the logistics hub of the southeastern United States.”
Lesser said the claims that Atlanta’s traffic has cost the city potential investment are not true, but transportation is the key to economic development.