Shoulder driving goes to governor

By Justin Boron and Michael Davis

Garnett Cox said traveling back and forth from Rex to Atlanta each day is a pain during rush hour, but not enough of one to warrant traffic on the shoulders of interstates.

"That's a good way to have an accident," the 58-year-old said.

A measure that could lead to allowing commuters to drive on interstate emergency lanes and shoulders in some areas in Georgia is heading for the signature of the governor.

House Bill 273, sponsored by Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough, and backed by top GOP leaders including House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, passed both chambers of the Georgia General Assembly and is awaiting Gov. Sonny Perdue's signature.

The bill calls for the state Department of Transportation to study the use of emergency lanes and hard shoulders on interstates during peak commute times in some areas. Lawmakers identified 10 different areas where the idea may fit best.

"Normally, he lets the will of the House and the Senate prevail," Lunsford said Tuesday of the bill's chances with Perdue. "We're hoping they'll at least look at it and see if there are some perfect locations."

The bill received strong support in the House and Senate.

But it has run into some initial skepticism from a few senators and transportation officials, who raised questions about the proposal's impact on safety and the cost of reconstructing emergency lanes to handle more traffic, estimated at $1.8 million per mile.

"Right now, our emergency lanes are used for people who break down or have an accident, to get them out of traffic," said DOT spokesman Bert Brantley.

Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale, said she opposed the bill even though she is concerned about congestion in the Atlanta region.

"Obviously, the traffic in Atlanta and Georgia is something that has to be dealt with," she said.

Instead of the potentially unsafe, temporary solution, Seay said she would rather the state pursue alternative transportation measures like the commuter rail project planned to extend from Macon to Atlanta.

Initial plans for rail service from Lovejoy hit a road bump when $1 million in funds for the project were reallocated for port improvements in Brunswick.

One of the proposed sites for the "flex lanes" would be near the I-75/ I-675 merge just inside northern Henry County.

Lunsford said it would be a perfect area for the initiative because there are emergency lanes on both sides and grass shoulders that would allow emergency vehicle traffic to go around travel lanes.

"I'm trying to improve traffic through the county," he said.

A frequent driver of the stretch, Ahmed Rajahn, 38, of Jonesboro didn't like the idea for safety reasons. He pointed to a fatal accident that occurred on the shoulder of I-75 late Monday night.

"Those two are the worst highways they could've used," he said.

Officials also will study Virginia's use of flex-lanes and several other states where the idea was proposed but abandoned.

"We want to let people know that if the bill passes, we're going to do everything to give this idea a good evaluation," said the DOT's Brantley.