State’s transportation plans are at a crossroads
From Morris News Service
ATLANTA — Deepening the Savannah River, levying a sales tax for transportation, launching passenger-rail service, consolidating metro bus lines and beefing up freight routes are all issues that present different combinations of options for Georgia’s transportation network.
Adding to the equation are considerations of funding, traffic, air pollution and jobs.
In some respects, the choices simultaneously confronting the state are as significant as all of those made over the last 250 years taken at once.
“This is really a decision about whether we want to continue to be first,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who wants to build on the state’s existing logistics strengths to become the shipping hub of the Western Hemisphere.
To put many of the puzzle pieces in view, a handful of state agencies are cooperating on production of a freight and logistics plan. Although the final installments are still being drafted by a private consulting firm, some of the preliminary results are insightful.
Topping the list is the revelation that Georgia lags other states in transportation investment, and it’s costing the state jobs.
The state’s level of investment, as a percentage of its economic output, led the nation and the region in the 1970s. The state’s economy far surpassed the nation and region for the next two decades.
“This higher-than-average investment in the freight-transportation system was a key factor in the rapid (economic) expansion experienced by the state in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s,” a preliminary report states.
Georgia led in each of the freight-related sectors, like warehousing, manufacturing wholesale trade and retailing. Then, in the mid-1980s, the state’s investment in highways, ports, railways and airports declined as a percentage of economic activity, and the freight sectors’ performance eventually began to lag a few years later.
Regaining the 21 percent share of the Southeast’s freight market would boost Georgia’s economic output by $20 billion over the next 10 years, screams a bullet point in state Transportation Planning Director Todd Long’s presentation. That means jobs, he told the State Transportation Board Oct. 19.
And where should most of that investment go?
“The bottom line: the bulk of the state’s freight moves by Interstate,” Long said. “… We really need to make sure our Interstates are A-plus. The states that haven’t done that have suffered.”
Some of the so-called “last mile” routes leading to the ports of Savannah and Brunswick and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport also need upgrades, according to the study. It essentially accepts funding for the Savannah River deepening as a given and even shows that consumer demand will require development of the Jasper, S.C., port.
The full range of specific recommendations from the year-long study won’t be completed until the end of the year. It originated from recommendations made by a task force of private-sector executives assembled by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, who has established his own freight-hauling firm since leaving office.
The consultants conducting the study have sought advice from major shippers like UPS and Home Depot as well as the railroads and trucking companies who supplied data on projected demand. Feeding that data into a computer model revealed where some of the traffic chokepoints will develop.
A few freight-related improvements to address those chokepoints are included in the regional project lists for the sales-tax vote next year, but mostly in the Coastal region. The majority of projects in other regions are passenger related.
Gov. Nathan Deal, like his planning director, advocates freight infrastructure as a critical component in economic development. Tuesday, he told shippers at an Atlanta luncheon that he wants to encourage more small-business owners to use it to expand.
“We’re going to continue to promote both domestic production and exports,” he said, adding that on his recent trade mission to Asia, the Chinese officials expressed their interest in boosting shipments to Georgia.
He notes that Georgia has a unique mix of logistics assets, from the nation’s fastest-growing container port in Savannah to the world’s busiest passenger airport to most rapidly expanding automobile port in Brunswick. Add to that Interstates 20, 75, 85 and 95, service by two class-I railroads and its proximity in the heart of the booming Southeast consumer market.
“Very few states have all of these components,” he said.
No consensus has gelled around all of the questions facing Georgia’s transportation future. One area where it has, the deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel, could become a model for the other issues.
Georgia officials are unanimous in their support for federal funding of the project. All 13 members of the state’s congressional delegation from both major parties signed a letter recently urging the funding, and Republican Deal and Democrat Reed are jointly lobbying for it.
“There is not another state in this nation that has the same level of support from the top down,” said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.
Deal stresses that such unity is vital.
“If we don’t present a unified front, the New Yorks and New Jerseys who want that cargo business will,” he said
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