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Transportation and the Economy


Three major components of Georgia’s transportation system are vital to the state’s economy - the interstate highway system, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and the deepwater ports of Savannah and Brunswick. Georgia has over twelve hundred miles of interstate highways which connect Georgia to neighboring states and the rest of the nation, connect Georgia’s major cities, and help move workers from their homes to places of employment in the major cities. Three of the interstate highways converge in Atlanta, making it (along with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport) the transportation hub of the southeast. Atlanta is one of only five cities in the nation to be served by three separate interstate highways. Another highway (I-285) completely encircles Atlanta. I-75 extends from northwest Georgia to the southern border with Florida, passing through Atlanta and Macon. I-85 extends from northeast Georgia to the western border with Alabama, passing through Atlanta and near Columbus. I-20 crosses Georgia from east to west, passing through Augusta and Atlanta. I-95 extends along Georgia’s coast, passing near Savannah, while I-16 connects Macon and Savannah. Other interstate highways (see map below) run through smaller portions of Georgia, while others provide bypasses around major cities or spurs to other areas of Georgia. Combined, all of these interstate highways make moving products and people from one point in Georgia to another - or from Georgia to another state - relatively easy.

For more on the Interstate Highway System in Georgia, see the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

The construction of these interstate highways was instrumental in the booming growth of Atlanta in the latter part of the 20th century. The highways helped attract business, industry, and more transportation facilities to the Atlanta area. Following that came parks, warehouses, office buildings, shopping centers and malls, and new home and apartment construction. All of these advantages have led to many companies establishing offices in Atlanta, some of them even headquartered there. Georgia economic products can now reach approximately 80% of Americans overnight using the interstate highway system, while products coming into Georgia can reach Georgians in every part of the state just as quickly. Over half of Georgia’s total population now resides in the greater Atlanta metropolitan area.

For more on Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, see the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Two of the interstate highways - I-85 and I-285 - pass very near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport - another component of Georgia’s transportation system that is vital to the state’s economy. Hartfield-Jackson is always one of the busiest airports in the nation. All of those people moving through Atlanta add enormous impact to Georgia’s economy. Some are business travelers, visiting the state’s many corporate offices. Some are tourists - headed for Georgia’s beaches, mountains, theme parks, or one of the many other tourist destinations Georgia has to offer. Even those just passing through Atlanta often add to the economy by eating at restaurants or staying at hotels. But Hartfield-Jackson does more than just transport people. There are three air cargo complexes at the airport, totaling over two million square feet in area. All of these cargo areas have docks with convenient access to the interstate highways in and around Atlanta. Hartfield-Jackson also hosts the only Perishables Complex in the southeast - allowing for rapid movement of agricultural products. In addition, Hartsfield-Jackson is also home to the Georgia Foreign Trade Zone, where Georgia companies can produce products at reduced cost, helping to facilitate trade and increase the overall competitiveness of companies doing business in Georgia. With such advantages offered at Hartfield-Jackson, combined with the interstate highway system, Georgia products are withing two hours of eighty million U.S. consumers! Combining all aspects of Hartfield-Jackson’s effect on the regional economy of Atlanta, Georgia, and the southeast, it generates $23.5 billion on an annual basis.

A third component of Georgia’s transportation system that is vital to the state’s economy are the deepwater seaports of Savannah and Brunswick. These ports allow Georgia products to be sent via ship to all parts of the world, while allowing foreign products to come into Georgia. The ports are overseen by the Georgia Ports Authority, whose mission statement is “to develop, maintain, and operate ocean and inland river ports within Georgia; foster international trade and new industry for state and local communities; promote Georgia’s agricultural, industrial, and natural resources; and maintain the natural quality of the environment.” The port of Savannah handles approximately 80% of the material entering Georgia via ship, and is one of the fastest growing ports in the nation. The port of Savannah has two terminals - the Garden City Terminal which primarily handles bulk cargoes and large containers, and the the Ocean Terminal which primarily handles roll on/roll off materials, like automobiles and other wheeled products. While the port of Brunswick may be smaller, it still handles a significant amount of products through its three terminals - Mayor’s Point Terminal, Colonel’s Island Terminal, and Marine Port Terminal. Mayor’s Point Terminal and Marine Port Terminal handle general cargo and bulk items; Colonel’s Island Terminal is primarily used for the import and export of automobiles.

For more on the Georgia Ports Authority, see the Digital Library of Georgia.

The Georgia Ports Authority also supports economic river transportation in the western part of Georgia through barge facilities in Bainbridge and Columbus. The Bainbridge Inland Barge Terminal is located on the Flint River, which joins the Chattahoochee River as both leave Georgia at its southwestern point, to form the Apalachicola River, which flows to the Gulf of Mexico. Liquid and dry bulk commodities pass through this site. Farther up the Chattahoochee River in Columbus, the Columbus Inland Barge Terminal handles the movement of liquid products, like chemicals and oil, down the river to the Gulf.

While the trio of the interstate highways, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and the deepwater ports are the main engines that help drive Georgia’s economy - there is a fourth that, historically speaking, was most important of all - railroads. Atlanta was built as a railroad center, and its location at the junction of important lines is primarily what caused it to grow so fast and become Georgia’s largest city. Railroads - much like the interstate highways of today - also connected Georgia’s other cities, and were the main source of economic transportation for Georgia for most of its history through the 19th and first half of the 20th century. Clearly, the advent of other forms of economic transportation has lessened the importance of the railroads, but two lines still operate successfully in Georgia, only on a smaller scale than the big three forms of transportation.

Secondary roads are also vital to the state’s economy as a whole - the interstate highways do allow for massive and rapid transportation of products, but they do not reach into every locale in the state. But well-maintained state and county roads do combine with the interstate highways to allow Georgians relatively easy access to products from other parts of the state, or other sections of the country, and even other parts of the world. Let’s look at an example to see how all of this works. Say a car is manufactured in Korea, where it is put on a ship (with many others) and sent to the port of Savannah. There it can roll of onto a truck, where it is transported along I-16 to a dealership in Macon. Then a consumer from nearby Crawford County can take a state road into Macon, purchase the car, and drive it back to his home in Roberta! If the dealership in Macon sells a lot of cars, the owner may get a visit - and a bonus - from the owner of the car company - who flew in from California, landed at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, rented a car and drove down I-75 to Macon. Another example - a south Georgia pecan farmer has a good harvest and has many people wanting to buy his delicious product. Of course some will be sold locally, for making pies, candy, or eating right out of the shell. But some could also be sent by train to a warehouse, packaged and trucked up I-85 to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, then put on a cargo plane destined for New York City - where some lucky northern diners would get to taste the sweetness of south Georgia pecans!

One final note - we have seen how the big three transportation systems of the interstate highways, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and the deepwater ports are vital to Georgia’s economy in moving people and products statewide, nationwide, and worldwide. But there is another factor in which they drive the economy - job creation. It takes a lot of people - doing specialized jobs - to create, prepare, transport, and sell - all of the products exported from Georgia, and the same for those imported in to Georgia. These three transportation systems are either directly or indirectly responsible for the employment of thousands of people - and employment is always the basis of a sound economy. Thanks to the interstate highways, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and the deepwater ports - Georgia’s economy should remain on a sound footing.

More on Transportation and Georgia’s Economy

Transportation and the Economy View large image

Map Showing Georgia's Interstate Highway System, Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, and Deepwater Ports
Source: United States Department of Justice