Business leaders like Sam Williams are developing road rage.
Not the kind where you hand signal your dissatisfaction with someone who just cut you off. The kind where you won’t allow metro congestion to get worse without gearing up for a political fight.
“The CEOs are saying this has got to be fixed. We’ve got to have action and leadership,” said Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. “It is a top-of-mind issue for business, because it affects everyone’s quality of life.”
Just last week, Atlanta was ranked as the third most-congested urban area in the country. The study by the Texas Transportation Institute found that traffic delays cause us to waste an average of 57 hours a year. That’s a seven-day work week up in smoke.
Meanwhile, MARTA is raising the fare and cutting service because of a financial pothole that has never been filled.
Williams said traffic congestion is saddling business with something it had not bargained for — a “truncated labor force.”
Instead of having access to a labor pool of about 2.5 million workers here, the business community really has only about 500,000 people to draw from, he said. That’s because many employees don’t want to work at a job if they have to commute more than 30 or 45 minutes. Some employees, he added, take a job with a lengthy commute, only to quit after awhile.
The result, Williams said, is that traffic congestion can have a “big impact on economic development” when prospective employers weigh other options. “It gets to a tipping point,” he said, and then firms go elsewhere.
Yet, the state has failed to deal with this problem, time and time again. But, for now, let’s just talk about the past two years. As the metro area’s population continued to grow, the Legislature failed to pass a measure that would have allowed the region to vote on a penny sales tax to finance transportation projects.
“Give us the local financial tools for us to fix our own problems,” Williams said. He pointed to cities like Charlotte, Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Seattle, where local transportation taxes are helping to pay for the fixes.
Make no mistake about it, money is the issue for metro Atlanta. We already have more theoretical plans, studies and projects floating around than Lake Lanier has boats.
“We’re the third-fastest growing state in the nation and dead last in per capita transportation funding,” Williams said, citing a state government report issued last year.
Money can be a bargaining chip for business in upcoming political contests, including the 2010 gubernatorial race.
“I don’t think anyone should give a campaign contribution without hearing what [candidates] are doing to do to solve public transportation,” Williams said. “As a business organization, we’re organizing CEOs. … The business community is going to make this the No. 1 issue with state officials.”
Williams pointed out that the Metro Chamber is not alone. It’s part of the Get Georgia Moving coalition, which includes a diverse group, from clean air and transit advocates, to highway contractors and bankers.
For business leaders, Williams said, a consensus has emerged after years of frustration.
“Their patience,” he said, “is at the edge.”
Ditto for the rest of Atlanta.