By Mike Klein
America’s infrastructure is not entirely healthy – we knew that – and the federal government is not paying enough attention. That was one underlying message articulated this week when Georgia sold out its sixth annual Logistics Summit in Atlanta. As the state told its impressive logistics story, high profile speakers expressed levels of frustration with Washington.
“On a national scale U.S. ports construction has fallen behind, no debate about it whatsoever,” said Curtis Foltz, executive director at the Georgia Ports Authority. “I speak at different federal levels in Washington, DC, talk about it all the time. There needs to be a better focus, there needs to be a better commitment to improve the overall ports / freight network if we are going to stay competitive.”
“Asian airports now set the world standard,” said Miguel Southwell, interim aviation general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. “If you’ve been to Shanghai, if you’ve been to Hong Kong or Seoul, amazing airports. We no longer set the standard for airports. In fact, we’re sort of struggling to keep up.”
“There is nobody at the national level articulating how we develop the ports nationwide, how we develop the systems nationwide, how we make the United States continually more competitive,” said Ed Crowell, executive director at the Georgia Motor Trucking Association. “You’ve seen two-year highway bills at the federal level. Two-year highway bills don’t cut it. We need six-year plans. We need longer term plans for full development.”
The Georgia Logistics Summit is decidedly about advocating for and marketing the benefit of the state’s coordinated logistics approach to moving freight over land, sea and air routes. The conference began with what looked like robust attendance – 450 – in 2009 and has grown every year since, attracting a sold out 2,200 to the Georgia World Congress Center this week. The message has been consistent; when you locate in or need to move freight through Georgia you can be assured of coordinated results.
The Savannah River deepening project has been most in the headlines lately, largely because the federal government has failed to budget its share, several hundred million dollars, to deepen the river channel which must be ready to accommodate larger ships that soon will be passing through the Panama Canal.
“Governor Deal has made it clear that he’s going to do everything he can, given a full green light, to spend Georgia’s $266 million as quickly as he can to get this project moving forward,” Foltz said. Final federal approval is still not finished for this project whose origins date back twenty-something years. Congress actually authorized the project in 1999, many years after discussions and studies began.
Other massive logistics projects are underway or soon will be, including construction of two reversible lanes on Interstate 75 north of Atlanta, a reconsidered exchange for Interstate 285 and 400, major highway construction for easier access to and from the Savannah ports and, eventually, shifting sizable truck traffic from roads leading into Atlanta to routes further west, away from the city’s congestion. One might say the Downtown Connector could more reasonably be named the Downtown Compactor.
And then there is the international airport, still the world’s busiest passenger facility with 94.5 million travelers last year, some 8 million more than the Beijing, China airport. Southwell said Atlanta feels good about keeping that busiest-in-the world title. “Even as China develops new airports we believe that will actually dilute the number of passengers who come through Beijing,” he said.
Georgia markets itself as an international quality resource. The state learned how to compete against other regions. Georgia ports support 350,000 jobs statewide with some $18.5 billion annual income, according to the UGA Terry College of Business. The state has two Class 1 rail carriers – CSX and Norfolk Southern – and 4,700 miles of rail track. The philosophy continues to be invest today, invest tomorrow.
Foltz said the Georgia Ports Authority will increase facility improvement spending from $100 million per year to $1.4 billion over the next decade, an average of $140 million per year. “Atlanta is our New York City of the South,” Foltz said. “The Southeast is the fastest growing region of the country, has been in the last census, and is expected to be for at least the next half century.”
Atlanta’s airport has nearly finished a $5 billion upgrade and will develop a new multi-billion dollar master plan. Southwell looks at Asia’s rapidly expanding middle class and he sees economic opportunity for Georgia. “That gets me excited. We like to think of ourselves as being in the air transportation industry,” Southwell said. “The fact is, we are in the economic development business. Until they develop Beam-Me-Up-Scotty technology, the outlook for air transportation is good.”