“This is probably the biggest no-brainer thing that the State of Georgia should get done. If it doesn’t get it done, shame on it.”
So says K. C. Conway, Senior VP, Credit Risk Management, SunTrust Banks, Inc. Conway is an economic forecaster who has among other things, briefed the Federal Reserve. He is talking about the Georgia Export/Import Highway, a proposed corridor spanning approximately 80 miles from I-85 near LaGrange to I-75 near Macon, running through Upson County on the way. The corridor could serve as a logical east-west continuation of I-16 and a parallel alternative to I-20, providing a direct route across the state from the Port of Savannah to Central West Georgia.
Conway was the guest speaker at the Thomaston-Upson Chamber of Commerce’s October Lunch & Learn, held at The Rock Ranch and sponsored by the Three Rivers Regional Commission.
Conway said the export-import highway would not just serve Georgia, but would serve the nation as a key route between the Port of Savannah and intermodal container facilities.
“Fewer rail cars are on the railroads each month, but intermodal containers are going up at a steady rate,” Conway said. “We’re getting things off of trucks. Everything is getting more congested, and that’s one of the big arguments for this export-import highway. We need a relief valve from Atlanta, and we need a more direct path to get from Savannah through Macon and south of Atlanta where the intermodal facility is. Right now it has to come in on I-285 and fight its way all the way around Atlanta’s congestion and growth. So we have this great intermodal facility and this great international airport that is saying they don’t want any more air cargo, which is not as profitable as air passengers. So air cargo is getting pushed out of Atlanta and trucks can’t get through.
“Intermodal is taking a container off a ship or off a tractor-trailer, and putting it on rail. Atlanta has a great intermodal facility, but if we don’t solve the traffic solution between there and the ports, I think you’re going to see it move to Alabama or South Carolina. They are also developing one in Winter Haven, Florida, between Orlando and Tampa, for everything coming out of Miami and Jacksonville. And they’re developing the largest one in the country in Ellwood, Illinois, out past Chicago. Seventeen miles of rail track, with machinery that can move seven containers a minute from trucks to trains.”
After World War II, the supply chain for the United States started on the west coast at the Port of Los Angeles, which at the time was the only port large enough to handle the commercial traffic. But with ports up and down the east coast, like Savannah, being enlarged, Conway said the supply chain is moving from the west coast to the east coast, and Georgia is primed to play a big part in that.
“We have the right rail infrastructure. We have a great port in the Port of Savannah,” Conway said. “It set an all-time record this year – 3.3 million containers, a 17 percent container growth, and they haven’t even dredged the port yet. They finally got the legislature to give up the money so the engineers could dredge the Savannah River.
“So when we come out of Savannah, we have the rail connections to get into the rail yards, but there is a big need for a lot of trucks moving, coming into Atlanta on I-75 and I-85. We’ll probably have complete gridlock on 75/85 south of I-285 within five years. Sometimes during the day we’re already there.
“The really important thing is with the export-import highway, we can bypass all of Atlanta and I-285 and bring the goods across to Cordele. Georgia is trying to create an inland port area there, which would be a magnet for every kind of industry you could imagine. We’ve also got airports along the route with runways long enough to make them into an airport reliever air cargo facility. So imagine the capacity of a Fed-Ex or UPS center. This would be a horizontal magnet that would bring all this industry here.
I think this highway would bring in $20 billion in economic impact, and probably 10,000 to 20,000 new real jobs.
“Of all the options we have,” he continued, “with that kind of economic impact for the low dollar figure it would cost, this is a no-brainer. This is as critical a project to the Port of Savannah as dredging the port. That’s the message that has got to get through to the Georgia legislature and the governor – If you dredge the Port of Savannah and you don’t address this issue, you probably don’t realize half your economic benefit. Bringing super container ships in without a way to move the containers is like having a fire hydrant and hooking a garden hose up to it. It’s not going to work very well.
“If Georgia doesn’t make this happen, shame on it,” Conway said. “ It will cut the return on the investment of dredging the Port of Savannah and everything they are doing there by 50 percent. This is the parallel inland that has to happen to make all that work. Keep fighting for it.”
Among those attending the Lunch & Learn was State Representative Robert Dickey of Musella. After Conway’s presentation, Dickey said he and his colleagues know the value of the export-import highway.
“I think it is very important for this whole region,” Dickey said. “It has been on my radar screen. I think now that we have some more transportation money coming in the pipeline, I think we’ll have a lot more opportunities moving forward. Johnnie Caldwell and I, and John Kennedy, all of us are going to really get to work pushing this and see if we can’t get some things going.”
Larry Stanford may be reached at 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @LarryStanford7.