Charlie Harper: Five Georgias: One Transportation Network
Tuesday, June 13th, 2017
We’ve spent the last several weeks delving into the Five Georgias – the five distinct regions that form economic and political coalitions which govern the state. These include Atlanta’s Urban Core, Suburban Atlanta, The Coast, The Mountains, and South Georgia. The focus has been on what makes each region different.
Today, we’ll begin a look at what brings the state together. As one state we are not the sum of our differences. Rather, we must play to each region’s strengths and mitigate the weaknesses in order to have the best Georgia possible.
Among the first items that bring us together are the things that literally bring us together. Georgia is a regional leader and international business destination because of our transportation network. Our ability to move people and products around the state and around the globe gives Georgians of all regions a stake in maintaining and expanding our transportation infrastructure network.
“Logistics, transportation – they are in our DNA.” It’s not remarkable that such a quote would be said by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, the highest profile public figure of Atlanta’s Urban Core. After all, Atlanta operates the world’s busiest airport that is a key economic engine for much of North Georgia.
He made this comment, however, in support of deepening the ship channel in the Savannah River to expand the Port of Savannah, some 250 miles away. That’s emblematic of an understanding that we as a state are the sum of a lot of moving parts - Planes, trains, and automobiles.
The expansion of Savannah’s port has impacts across the state. It is important that Georgians understand exactly who benefits from the bigger ships docking at Savannah’s Garden City Terminal.
Savannah’s port is one of the few in the country that has a rough balance of imports and exports. Approximately as many goods leave from the port as are brought in by it.
What is significant is that the container ships arriving at the port are generally filled with consumer goods. What leaves the port are often the products of Georgia’s agribusiness, including a substantial amount of product from Georgia’s forestry industry.
These items tend to be heavier, and thus, a ship departing from Savannah tends to carry lower in the water than when it arrived. Making the ship channel deeper is about exporting Georgia produced goods, not importing more foreign made products.
Rail is an equally important but much less talked about component of Georgia’s transportation equation. While Georgia is quite limited on options for passenger rail, the amount of freight moving by rail through and around the state is significant.
Freight rail capacity is a critical part of keeping up with traffic congestion throughout a growing state. Every freight car represents a box car not on Georgia’s roads.
Better, faster freight rail is part of bringing the economic power of Georgia’s logistics industry to parts of the state in great need of economic development. The inland port at Cordele Georgia and the inland port under construction in Murray County are the first of several planned terminals to speed goods to and from the ports – and bypass Atlanta’s traffic.
Trucks, however, are going to be a significant part of the state’s freeway future, regardless of how much port traffic can be shifted to rail. Atlanta is now a region of almost 6 million people, and the goods we consume every day must get to our stores and online fulfillment centers somehow.
A pilot project is scheduled between Henry County and Macon, South of Atlanta, to separate truck traffic from car traffic on I-75. This will see if providing different lanes for trucks than those for Florida snowbirds and Georgians heading to the coast or Disneyworld creates a more efficient and safer environment for all.
And then, of course, there’s the traffic problem of metro Atlanta. The density of the Urban Core makes “more roads” an unlikely option, even for much of the Atlanta Suburbs. The benefits of transit to maintain quality of life and economic development are now better understood. Thus it’s likely a new push to expand rail beyond MARTA’s current footprint will be successful.
At the end of the day, all of Georgia has a stake in the world class transportation network we have developed. It’s not just about freedom of movement. It’s about economic mobility.
Those modes just look very different depending on which one of the Georgias you are in.
Charlie Harper is the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy issues of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.