Metro Atlanta's traffic congestion is endangering its future growth, according to one of the nation's top site selection experts, who advises companies on where to send their jobs.
Atlanta's traffic problem has put it "at the point of no return," said Dennis J. Donovan.
Clients of his company, New Jersey-based WDG Consulting, include at any given time about a third of the Fortune 500 companies. And something new is happening in his client meetings that didn't in the 1990's, Donovan said.
"Up until seven or eight years ago when we had Atlanta on a recommended short list" for places to relocate or expand a business, "we rarely heard grumbling," he said.
That has changed. Now, he said, when Atlanta shows up on a short list, "Every one of our companies, every one of them, says, 'Boy, isn't there a lot of traffic down there?'"
While he had not yet seen his own clients refuse to consider Atlanta, he said he believes that some companies are quietly rejecting Atlanta because of traffic. He cited MeadWestvaco, which relocated its headquarters —and hundreds of new jobs— to Richmond, Va., instead of Atlanta because of traffic.
Lots of places have transportation funding problems, but Atlanta's congestion is the second worst in the nation, Donovan noted, and "the planning and funding to make sure this wouldn't happen hasn't been done."
Donovan made his comments to the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, which backed a bill this year allowing counties to group together as a region and put funding for regional projects to voter referendum.
That bill and others went to a legislative study committee that expects to issue recommendations for transportation funding soon. Responding to hints that new reports of lax management at the state Department of Transportation may give lawmakers an excuse to put off any funding bill, Rep. Chuck Martin (R-Alpharetta) said they shouldn't postpone action.
He said a bill passed this session wouldn't have money rolling in until 2009 at the earliest, when DOT reforms should be well under way.
Also present at the chamber meeting Monday were representatives of the Dallas and Charlotte chambers. The Dallas official advocated public-private toll roads, and the Charlotte official talked about that region's half-cent tax that's paying for bus expansion and a newly opened light rail line. Both said light rail in their regions have had high ridership.
Donovan didn't pick sides in what sort of transportation funding should be adopted, but said the region needs a big, holistic solution including roads, now.
"You're way beyond that point. This shouldn't be a subject of debate," Donovan said.
Site Selection magazine recently ranked Georgia second in the nation for top business climate, but considering Donovan's remarks, that snapshot of Georgia's desirability, at least regarding Atlanta, may not depict the future.
According to the magazine and Donovan, a region's talent pool is the top factor for executives deciding where to go.
But when traffic gets so bad that people are no longer willing to take certain commutes, Donovan said, that means traffic is effectively cutting off part of the metro area's labor pool, Atlanta's greatest attracting asset.