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A warning we better heed
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A few months ago, I attended a breakfast meeting to hear from one of the top economic development consultants in America, Dennis J. Donovan, a man who has compiled a long and respected career advising corporations on expansions and relocations.

I am a fanatic when it comes to companies locating in Georgia, but my reasons extend beyond pride and love for my state. I firmly believe that we have a multitude of benefits to offer any company or organization, from a strong pro-business climate to an unmatched quality of life. For decades, corporate America has agreed and Georgia reaped the benefits of corporate relocation.  

So, when breakfast was finished, the group settled back to hear Donovan speak. We were expecting to hear that even though things nationally had tightened up in economic development, Georgia was still in the driver’s seat among all states.

Although serious by nature, Donovan was even more so on this cold, crisp winter morning. The news he was bringing to this audience of north Georgia business and civic leaders was about to jolt us out of our seats.

“Traffic in the metro Atlanta area,” he said, “has put the area at the point of no return.”  But, instead of citing a long list of case histories and reciting statistics that most of us already know, he summed up his case with a quote he said he was hearing about the region from more and more of his clients: “Boy, isn’t there a lot of traffic down there?”

No surprise there, but the transportation problems we face in Georgia go beyond sheer volume and diminishing capacity. As a state, we are not addressing long-term transportation challenges with the vision and determination we’ve shown on other issues.  Not to sound too pessimistic, but every day we delay in taking action, we are putting our future growth at risk, not just in metro Atlanta, but also in every part of our great state.

How serious is the problem? Georgia faces a $200 billion transportation-funding shortfall through 2035. Right now, there are major repairs needed in all parts of the state, but not enough money to do the work. These problems will worsen if not corrected.

In addition, one in five Georgia bridges shows significant deterioration or does not meet current standards. Seven percent of them are structurally deficient and 13 percent are functionally obsolete.

Finally, traffic fatalities on Georgia roadways are occurring at a rate higher than the national average. And, traffic fatalities on the state’s rural routes are occurring at a significantly higher rate than on other roads, putting a portion of our population at risk when they travel in non-urban areas.

All of this adds up to a crisis situation, fraught with peril in every direction.

Why are we in this situation? Primarily, because the state has grown so dramatically over the past five years, adding more than 1 million people just since 2002. That means more Georgians than ever are driving longer distances for their daily commutes. Georgia’s motor fuel tax has remained virtually unchanged for 27 years and does not generate enough money to fund badly needed projects.

Speaking of projects, there are at least 600 of them, all deemed “high priority,” that will have to wait until the money is there. And, delays simply add to the eventual cost.

Both the state Senate and the House have proposed constitutional amendments, which enable counties to band together to identify specific transportation improvement projects and then present them to voters in their region. If passed as a sunsetted SPLOST, the funds would remain at home. It’s expected that either 100 percent or 90 percent of the money would be returned to the local community, earmarked for transportation only.

The Georgia Chamber supports this move as a first step. In the meantime, I urge everyone to contact their legislators and tell them that we need to address transportation funding now. We simply cannot wait any longer.

George Israel is the president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.