Politics is the link between roads and jobs

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ATLANTA — Talk of a new port, a new Caterpillar factory and a new logistics study in one short week will all shape the political battle over transportation dollars for months and years ahead.

Georgia’s newest job-creation announcement Friday from Caterpillar came with a couple of statements that illustrate the linkage between transportation and economic development.

The linchpin in that linkage is politics, of course.

At the Caterpillar announcement, Vice President Mary Bell stressed that Athens’ four hours from the port of Savannah had been a major factor in her decision of where to locate the $200 million factory that will eventually bring 1,400 jobs and another 2,800 supplier jobs.

“Logistics is a primary success factor for our business, and the proximity of Athens to the Savannah port will be a major, major plus for us,” she said.

For any Georgian who had not already embraced the gospel of deepening the Savannah River to accommodate larger freighters, Bell’s words may be convincing testimony. It was also more evidence of how interconnected the state’s economy is when a four-hour drive is close enough to sway the location of a multinational’s plant.

As Georgia officials continue to lobby Washington for federal funds for the harbor expansion, it’s certain her comments will be repeated often.

It also illustrates why earlier last week the executive director of the Camden County Economic Development Authority made a pitch to lawmakers for the state to establish a new ocean port on the St. Marys River. The sight of a former paper mill that had a barge dock is on the market for $12 million, just 3 miles up river from a channel already as deep as Savannah’s.

If a site four hours away can attract jobs, think how many the vacant land in the same county could draw.

The county has seen its dreams of lush retirement resorts vanish in the smoke of the recent recession along with the jobs from the paper mill that went bankrupt. So, there’s plenty of incentive to use political influence to compete for scarce state-taxpayer dollars to develop a new port.

At the same news conference, Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman injected fuel into another political battle involving transportation. He said the state’s pending referendum on a sales tax for transportation projects was a factor in his own thinking about where to put the plant.

“That was a consideration in coming to Georgia. We need infrastructure badly in this country. I know. I sell infrastructure products, full disclosure, no problem,” he admitted. “That Transportation Investment Act is critical in making Georgia competitive. We’ll work for it, from all of our employees’ perspective here in Georgia to help get that passed here this summer.”

No doubt, Oberhelman’s comments, like Bell’s, will be repeated often in the political campaign waged by business interests in support of the tax. Indeed, Tea Party activists opposed to the tax recognized its potency in an email just hours after he uttered it.

“I just heard on the radio a snippet from the announcement about Caterpillar,” wrote Patti Pratt to fellow activist Dr. Bill Hudson. “... This will make our job of killing it much harder.”

Earlier in the week, the state issued a report that is also likely to become fodder for future political debates over transportation spending. It is the recommendations of a multi-year, multi-agency analysis of the statewide logistics network. The point was to identify the weaknesses now and over the next 40 years as cargo traffic grows.

The governor sanctioned the study, and the engineering consultants dove into it with the unstated expectation that its data would offer an inoculation against political influence. Since the state began, government decisions about which infrastructure projects to pursue have usually been based largely or entirely on political power.

For decades, rural legislators have gone to Atlanta to push for better highways to their homes in hopes they would lure industry. The newly released logistics study shows that the state depends more on Interstate highways rather than four-lane freeways connecting country crossroads.

The logistics study has already had an impact. Before it was launched, nearly every conversation about transportation dwelt on how to relieve commuter congestion. Even chamber of commerce officials were warning that the traffic woes of passenger automobiles was an economic-development issue if they sacred away companies considering Georgia locations.

Since commuters drive into and out of individual metro areas, the discussions then were about distinct transportation problems in the various cities.

Now, everyone is singing from the freight hymnal about how important the statewide network is. A network that is only as strong as its weakest link, shifting the focus from local to statewide.

In the coming months and years, the political debates over transportation will only become more sharply focused thanks in part to the events of a single week.

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424 or walter.jones@morris.com.


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