By Chris Clark, President & CEO, Georgia Chamber of Commerce
Georgia has boasted record economic growth for five consecutive years with over $134 billion in capital investment, $68 billion in real GDP growth, over two thousand new or expanded project locations, and 268,000 jobs created throughout every corner of the state. Our economic development successes aren’t an accident of geography. They result from thoughtful policies that have yielded a strong, stable, and predictable business climate that has earned Georgia the designation of “Best Place for Business” for an unprecedented ten consecutive years. But as Governor Brian Kemp rightly noted in his second inaugural address, we can’t maintain our best-in-class business status by continuing the status quo.
Our business and elected leaders have recognized the need to equip our critical infrastructure network to support the magnitude of growth we have seen – and will continue to see – for the foreseeable future. Significant investments have already been made to increase the capacity of our ports and unclog some of the largest trucking intersections throughout our highway system. However, our state needs to invest an additional $1.5 billion annually to ensure the well-being of our infrastructure systems and secure future economic success.
We need visionary leadership to enact the policies that will keep Georgia thriving for decades to come. Georgia’s economic growth is sustainable only with a large and well-maintained freight network of roads, bridges, railways, and ports that can accommodate the trucks and rail cars needed to move goods to and from the booming Georgia Ports, to serve Georgia’s growing agriculture, manufacturing and logistics/distribution sectors, and to meet the exploding demand for e-commerce.
The Georgia Department of Transportation is currently developing a long-term, comprehensive plan for meeting these growing needs. We know what must get done: new roads, bridges, and rail, more limited access highways, and more inland ports. Georgia’s thriving business climate, enduring economy, and fully employed workforce have combined with the state’s conservative budgeting to produce a surplus into the next fiscal year. This gives policymakers the ability to make a significant down payment on our future infrastructure needs that will keep our economic engine humming over the next year without new revenue.
To give one example of improving mobility, there are 5,500 rail crossings on Georgia roads where cars must stop and wait for long trains to pass. Building infrastructure to allow traffic to go above or below the tracks would greatly increase travel times and safety – but would cost billions to complete.
From 2018 to 2045, the volume of freight moving in Georgia is expected to increase 48 percent, from 597 million tons valued at $875 billion in 2018 to 885 million tons worth $1.8 trillion in 2045. This means the number of trucks on the road will far exceed the 39 million that passed through Georgia weigh stations last year and trains will grow longer and slower.
Already, nine of the nation’s 100 worst truck bottlenecks are in Georgia with two in the top 5 worst (Spaghetti Junction and I-285/I-20 on the west side). These delays increase the cost of goods we buy, waste time and fuel, and yes, increase our stress levels.
The quicker we can act to upgrade our freight network, the better the results for taxpayers. The same supply chain and inflation issues that have driven up the prices of eggs and gas have also driven up the cost of building and maintaining roads and bridges. Road resurfacing now costs up to $1.15 million per mile, road widening is up to $18.1 million per mile, and a new highway interchange costs up to $100 million per mile. These costs are only going to continue to rise year over year.
In the 2023 legislative session, leading members of the House and Senate highlighted the need for action and signaled repeatedly their intention to move forward next year. Policymakers can move forward knowing they have the support of the people of Georgia behind them. In a December poll, 70 percent of Georgians supported increasing transportation funding by $1.5 billion a year. The question is less, “Can we afford it?” and more, “Can we afford not to?”
This investment in our tomorrow must begin today. Together, we can build sustainable prosperity that benefits the businesses, citizens, and economy of Georgia.