'Truck traffic is about to double in Georgia. You think you have a problem now? Buckle up.'
—Susan Owings, founder of Road Safe America
AS I WRITE this, by our unofficial count there have been 13 homicides so far this year in the jurisdiction of Savannah-Chatham Metro Police.
It's a number that's provoked much heated debate and will continue to do so.
But in an even shorter length of time we've seen about the same number of equally needless and tragic deaths on local highways.
Five Georgia Southern students dead in a fiery crash on I-16 involving an 18-wheeler.
Another five people dead in a crash 20 miles down I-16 a month later, also involving an 18-wheeler.
One dead on Georgia Highway 21, a wheelchair-bound musician, in a bizarre crash, also involving an 18-wheeler.
On Midtown Savannah streets, in the past week a pedestrian was struck and killed at 37th and Paulsen, and another pedestrian had to have his leg amputated after being caught in the middle of a collision on West 52nd Street.
All of this unfathomably horrifying and depressing carnage is happening against the backdrop of an increasingly impassable Highway 80 to Tybee Island, subject to road-blocking accidents nearly every weekend this spring.
The accidents have become so common that Tybee Mayor Jason Buelterman is pleading for people to use the hashtag #fix80now in a desperate bid to focus state attention on the need to widen the road.
While so far most of the Highway 80 issue has been the hours-long inconvenience—not to mention millions of dollars of economic stimulus lost—it's only a matter of time before there's a multiple fatality on that road similar to the horrors on I-16.
Like crime, the traffic issue is complicated and defies easy analysis.
The I-16 and GA 21 accidents all involved out-of-control tractor-trailers, and to an extent also involved increased Georgia Department of Transportation roadwork.
The Highway 80 problem is one of scale—a single two-lane road on and off a heavily traveled vacation destination, with a high proportion of drunk drivers in each direction.
Is it possible that the 2015 City elections will focus less on rampant crime than on rampant traffic? A few months ago that would have sounded completely nuts.
But with every weekend that goes by with the Lazaretto or Bull River bridges gridlocked for hours, with babies suffering heat stroke and emergency vehicles unable to reach yet another accident scene, it seems less and less crazy, doesn't it?
The real elephant in the room, of course, is the steroidal growth of business at the Port of Savannah, with the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) recently bragging about a jaw-dropping 26 percent increase in container volume in April alone.
And increased port growth equals increased 18-wheeler traffic.
The reason all those ships come here sure as hell isn't to take the 20-mile trip up the Savannah River just to tie up at the dock. It's because of our proximity to I-16, I-95 and rail lines, as the westernmost port on the entire East Coast.
Needless to say, there hasn't been a corresponding 26 percent increase in the size of the three roadways currently serving basically all of the Port's truck traffic.
In a way, this is a perfect political issue because local politicians can do very little to directly affect change—Buelterman's well-intentioned hashtag being a good example.
Paradoxically, their relative lack of power gives them added latitude to speak their minds bluntly, since Mayors and City Councils and County Commissions aren't accountable for running the Interstate Highway System, nor of Georgia roadways.
Alderman Tony Thomas, in particular, has been vociferous on the issue, saying this in a recent Facebook post:
Georgia Ports should step up to the plate. All that bragging about growth doesn't mean a thing when it comes to the cost of human lives. Better equipment, slower speeds, speed enforcement, insurance regs, driver's backgrounds, and inspections of trucks—all of these are things that Georgia Ports Authority—the Mighty GPA should be looking into. Don't sit on the sidelines and do nothing. GPA needs to take a lead.
Now, if you know anything at all about Georgia politics in general and Savannah politics in particular, you'll know that with that statement Thomas touched the electrified Third Rail.
Attacking GPA—or even mildly tut-tutting GPA under your breath—in Savannah is like running for President of the U.S. and saying you really think we need to just re-do the whole Social Security thing, and maybe put ISIS in charge of it.
Where heady statements like Thomas's can be felt isn't in direct influence over road planning, but in the ability to get the public fired up to lobby their state lawmakers to address the issues.
The devil, as usual, is in the details. What issues should they address?
Building and widening more roads? Voters already voted down the T-SPLOST measure which would have widened Highway 80, for example.
Getting GA DOT to be more wise about planning roadwork, such as the seemingly endless and constant work on I-16? Good luck with that, since they're probably the only organization in the state more powerful than GPA itself.
Increasing trucker regulations? There are already plenty of regulations, they just aren't enforced. This would be a great start, but unfortunately does nothing to address the sheer volume of 18-wheeler traffic on the roads.
Encouraging alternative forms of transportation so we will rely less on automobiles? See John Bennett's excellent News Cycle column in this issue for a personal viewpoint on the difficulties involved in changing attitudes about that.
The cold hard truth is that in a sense these problems are due largely to what most of you said you wanted:
Increased economic growth.
It's become an ironclad article of faith that the more tourists come to Savannah and Tybee the better, the more ships come to the Port of Savannah the better.
Maybe, maybe not. But in any case that certainly means more cars and more trucks on the roads.
And yes, more deaths and more sorrow.
The problem with growth is rarely with growth itself, but in the lack of planning for it. cs