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Assessing Atlanta’s Position in Global Commerce

Downtown Atlanta is seen from the SkyView Atlanta, a 200-foot (61-meter) tall Ferris wheel with 42 gondolas, in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, July 18, 2013.

Georgia plays a key role driving our nation’s goods trade. Supported by large freight hubs like Atlanta and Savannah, the state operates at the center of global value chains, facilitating the efficient movement of goods between markets at home and abroad. Through infrastructure investment and forward-looking policy measures, Georgia continues to pioneer new ground defining the future of freight and how it can better support metropolitan economies.

Georgia, of course, is not alone in this task. As we strive to accelerate our economic growth and become more globally competitive, we need to better gauge where we stand in these extensive trade networks, and not just how much freight we move. It is equally important to understand the types of goods we produce and consume, and ultimately where these goods are headed.

The Brookings Institution’s Metro Freight series begins to identify the magnitude—and direction—of metropolitan goods trade with greater precision. At the same time, by gaining a better sense of how Atlanta and other metro areas connect with one another, we can start to develop a national freight policy where public and private leaders collaborate in a truly comprehensive trade environment, working together to uncover the buried details of our domestic and international trade networks.

Atlanta’s performance shows that local trade stands shoulder-to-shoulder with our long-standing leadership in logistics. The metro area ranks 10th nationally in GDP ($244 billion), placing seventh based on its total goods trade volumes ($337 billion) and slightly ahead of metro areas with greater GDP like Boston and San Francisco. Although Atlanta consumes many different types of goods—including agricultural and energy products—it also runs notable surpluses in metals, transportation equipment, and mixed freight, all of which capture its local economic strength in a variety of industries. 

And these distinctive strengths are no accident. Targeted infrastructure investments, transportation improvements, and economic development strategies have made Georgia an attractive location for a variety of manufacturers and distribution centers, including Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Ikea, Target, Gulfstream, Lowe’s, KIA, Carter’s, and many more. Over the past year alone, Georgia has become the nation’s number one state for business and continues to be a leading center for warehouse and distribution center development

As Atlanta, Savannah, and other parts of the state continue to move tremendous volumes of goods, their hubs will serve as essential links guiding future economic activity. From Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to Savannah’s ocean container port, and Brunswick’s automobile terminal, traffic levels are reaching new highs and will increasingly depend on the reliable transport of goods along the state’s roads and rails. For instance, in addition to processing 8,000 plus truck transactions daily, the Port of Savannah generates over 10 million carloads of domestic rail connectivity annually—5.5 million of which stay in Georgia—signaling its crucial and evolving role in the entire state’s transportation network, especially for Atlanta.

Fortunately, leaders statewide are acting to further Georgia’s strategic position in global commerce. From the Georgia departments of Transportation and Economic Development to the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s Supply Chain Leadership Council and the Georgia Chamber’s Transportation Alliance, policymakers are exploring ways to maximize freight’s economic potential and prioritize projects of critical need. Through the state’s freight and logistics action plan, in particular, we are aiming to improve the capacity, capability, and connectivity of our supply chains, while enhancing those corridors essential to our long-term growth. This business plan was recently instrumental in helping to advise state legislators in officially designating a Freight Corridor Network that further helps the State DOT prioritize and apply funding to targeted freight related projects all across our State.  These actions are just a few examples of Georgia’s focus on being a better partner to private industry. 

Collectively, if we can continue to increase the reliability of the network that companies rely on to move freight, they will in turn be more competitive and grow jobs here at home. Recently, Site Selection Magazine named Georgia as having the “#1 Business Climate in the Nation” and cited the impact of our extensive and diverse logistics assets as a key reason. The Atlanta-focused metropolitan export plan promises to be another important tool in helping public and private sector leaders alike to expand our region’s industrial reach to every corner of the globe.

While we still lack a national freight policy, Georgia has charted a clear path forward based on our collective freight needs. Over time, facilitating goods movement will require a closer look into the domestic and international trade networks spanning the entire United States, essential to the economic health of all regions.

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