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Atlanta’s bad traffic cost Georgia bunch of tax revenue from this major manufacturer

Amazon’s recent search for a new major headquarters location was typical Amazon, in that it was anything but typical. It was public and quite publicized. We know who bid, and in many cases, how much. As with most things Amazon does, it was able to collect a huge amount of data from prospective host cities and states. We know who won, and — even more unusual — we know who lost.

Most economic development project searches are kept secret until they are over. We know who won when there is an announcement of a relocation or expansion. We rarely know who else was in consideration.

All of this makes an announcement by Toyota Motor North America last month a bit unusual. Five years ago the American arm of the Japanese manufacturing giant announced a move from Southern California to a suburb of Dallas. In an April interview with trade publication Automotive News, Toyota’s North American CEO Jim Lentz let us know who came close but short: Charlotte and Atlanta.

Perhaps worse for Atlanta’s ego following on the recent news that Charlotte is poaching yet another large bank headquarters with BB&T’s recent merger with SunTrust, Charlotte was ahead of Atlanta. According to Lentz, Charlotte’s problem was that there wasn’t enough housing available for the influx of managers and executives who would transfer. Toyota says 65% of its workforce took advantage of the opportunity to relocate.

So what kept those people from becoming Georgians instead of Texans? Traffic.

Southern California is known for some of the worst traffic in the country. So is Atlanta.

“It would have been a lot of the same California issues, and you would have traded traffic for traffic,” Lentz told Automotive News. He went on to say that he wasn’t willing to trade problem for problem, but had to be sure he had to make life better for his employees willing to go through the hassle of a relocation.

Georgia officials would be quick to point out that Dallas’ traffic isn’t much better than Atlanta’s. There is a notable difference of perception however. Dallas’ light rail system has been in a constant state of expansion, with extensions completed in 2002, 2010, 2014 and 2016. Texas has also expanded their freeway network on a regular basis, whereas Georgia is still recovering from decades of population growth while maintaining highway construction spending among the lowest per capita in the country.

Georgia began to address the highway spending problem with a change in the gas tax formula in 2015. The additional revenue raised, however, has mostly been addressing deferred maintenance and major interchange improvements throughout the state. Planned improvements for the metro Atlanta area include a system of toll lanes similar to those recently opened northwest of the city on Interstate 75.

Transit solutions have proven more elusive. While a 2018 law brokered a “transit governance” agreement to bring Atlanta’s suburbs and MARTA serving urban core to the same table, funding transit expansion has proven more elusive.

Gwinnett County, the largest county in the state currently not served by MARTA, rejected an expansion plan into the county earlier this year. Meanwhile, tens of thousands continue to move into the region every year.

It’s not completely a situation that, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, is where no one comes to Atlanta anymore because it’s too crowded. Sandy Springs managed to land Mercedes Benz’s North American Headquarters after Toyota passed on the region. Mercedes HQ location is both near existing MARTA rail service and the development includes significant new housing construction made available to relocating employees.

As such, Toyota’s revelation is but a single data point, but an important one nonetheless. Competition for high paying jobs is as intense as ever, and the company has let the world know of a perceived weakness in the sales pitch of the “number one state to do business”. It’s also a direct signal to Georgia’s political and business community not to rest on past accomplishments.

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