By Mike Klein
Think about this image. You are traveling down one of Georgia’s splendid highways and suddenly a train carrying coal hurtles past in a near blur. High speed rail discussion is usually about moving people. But how about moving coal and other cargo at high speeds?
“Definitely we could and we should,” says Page Siplon, executive director at the Georgia Center of Innovation for Logistics, which describes itself as “Georgia’s leading resource for accelerating logistics growth and competitiveness in the state.”
Most folks don’t associate coal with Georgia, but they should. Rail cars haul more than 40 million tons of black gold across the state every year. That is 800 percent more tonnage than grain, the next closest product.
These are the kinds of ideas that keep Siplon busy. His focus is how to move products at time and price points that enable businesses to deliver their promised goods. His goal is to make certain Georgia does it better than not just other Southern states, but every other state, especially those with ocean ports.
Just how well we are doing will be discussed Thursday when the Center of Innovation for Logistics hosts its second annual summit at the Cobb Galleria. Last year’s theme was defining logistics; the 2010 theme is connecting the dots. Five hundred attended last year; this year, 800 registered.
“Logistics is about moving stuff,” Siplon said. “That sounds easy. But the challenge is there are lots of dots that need to connect to move stuff. I stopped calling it an industry. I call it an ecosystem, a bunch of organisms that rely on each other completely. If you take trucks out of the mix, the airport shuts down. If you take the railroad out of the mix, the seaports shut down.”
Attendees can expect to hear about Georgia’s first statewide freight plan that will be unveiled at the conference. Siplon enthusiastically describes it as “the state’s first action and business plan around how we will move freight and logistics forward.”
This summit takes place against the backdrop of two recent developments. A 20-year strategy plan to move people and freight was released within the month. Last week the General Assembly approved a concept to fund designated projects within 12 regions if local voters approve a 1 percent sales tax.
Almost everything about Georgia transportation strategy has been controversial for years. But even as stakeholders often disagree about details, they do agree something must happen because economic development suffers without comprehensive transportation strategy.
Some 1 million employees and a $286 billion annual economic impact can be linked to Georgia logistics, according to Siplon. Nearly everything you purchase for business or home is moved by some combination of air, ship, rail and truck.
The state’s logistics “ecosystem” includes the Savannah and Brunswick ports, Atlanta’s international airport and dozens of regional aviation airports, 5,000 miles of main trunk and smaller rail lines, and a vast system of interstate and four-lane highways that serve the long-haul trucking industry. The state boasts about these resources during economic development pitches. And it should boast.
But any review of the system must also recognize challenges it faces. Let’s begin with the two ports, Savannah and Brunswick. Savannah’s harbor is dredged to 42 feet deep, completely insufficient within four years when the improved Panama Canal will begin to handle ships that require 48 feet.
Georgia is aggressively pursuing federal funds to deepen Savannah. Siplon said tens of millions of dollars were spent over the past decade on environmental impact studies. Georgia is confident deeper dredging will happen, but federal impact and funding decisions are not expected until next spring. Charleston, S.C., and Norfolk, Va., already have deeper harbors. Failure to deepen the harbor would relegate Savannah to second-tier East Coast port status and business would go elsewhere.
Equally big for Savannah and Brunswick is the so-called last mile, that is, easiest possible access to the two big maritime ports. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, the Center of Innovation for Logistics and virtually everyone else has identified this as a key priority. This involves thorough reviews and decisions about how to best improve rail and truck access to Savannah and Brunswick terminals.
Logistics to most Georgians means roads. The Foundation maintains that Georgia must relieve trucking congestion around urban areas, where 18-wheelers and commuter cars don’t mix well. Metropolitan Atlanta and the Macon-to-Atlanta corridor are two big challenges.
Atlanta’s modern congestion came about because of a major interstate highway system design flaw that funneled all traffic downtown. The Interstate 285 bypass is insufficient; the area’s population leapt over the bypass and now extends another 20 miles or more in every direction.
This problem is aggravated by how long-haul truckers must move cargo diagonally across the state. For example, from Albany or Columbus to Augusta, the only interstate option is north up I-75 then around Atlanta to connect with I-20. The Fall Line Freeway connecting Columbus to Macon to Augusta would also reduce Atlanta congestion.
Millions of tons of trucking cargo travel across the state with no Georgia destination address. Freight that does not need to enter metro Atlanta would move much better with a north-south interstate near Georgia’s western border. Think of the route as Macon to Chattanooga. This would help alleviate Macon-to-Atlanta congestion and improve the city’s commuter slowdown.
U.S. manufacturing continues to shift from Midwest and Northeast to Southwest and Southeast, creating huge economic development opportunities for Georgia. “Freight first” policies that better connect major cities outside Atlanta and alleviate truck traffic that clogs the Atlanta region will make the entire state more attractive for economic development investment.
Additional summit information is available at www.georgialogistics.org.
Mike Klein is an editor with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (April 27, 2010). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.