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If Atlanta can’t expand airport, where do we look next? Try Middle Georgia on for size

Contour passengers board a nearly full jet headed to Baltimore from the Middle Georgia Regional Airport July 27, 2018.
Contour passengers board a nearly full jet headed to Baltimore from the Middle Georgia Regional Airport July 27, 2018. File photo

Voters in Gwinnett County, Georgia, two weeks ago rejected an expansion of MARTA. Just a few days ago, the Georgia legislature rejected a state take over of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The two issues are actually related.

As Georgia continues to grow, we are running out of road space. The only way to add more road space is to start taking private land. Taking land means disrupting homeowners and businesses. Commute times over the next decade from the northern part of I-285 to Jimmy Carter Boulevard, the area where a MARTA train would have gone, are expected to slow considerably. While drive times will be slowing, population in that corridor will be increasing.

Likewise, the Atlanta airport is running out of capacity. The airport is already considering a new concourse to add more gates, but it can only hold so many airplanes in landing and take off slots. Delta has long opposed adding a second airport in the metro Atlanta area. The company has stymied efforts in Paulding County and is rumored to have been behind opposition to a similar effort at the Lawrenceville airport.

Middle Georgia has an opportunity here, but right now that opportunity resides in the hands of the Bibb County Commission. The Middle Georgia Regional Airport may be a regional airport in name, but in practice it is fully owned and controlled by Bibb County. Prior to city-county consolidation, the airport was owned by the City of Macon.

When I chaired the Public Properties Committee for the city while on council, more than once various members of the city council opposed airport investment arguing that the majority of people who work at the airport do not live in Bibb County. These councilmen argued that Macon was paying for people who do not pay property taxes in the county. It was a short sighted and silly argument.

It is undeniable Atlanta is reaching capacity and Middle Georgia has capacity to spare in terms of accessible water, reasonably priced land, available areas for industrial expansion and an airport. That airport, however, really needs a few hundred more feet added to it and the county seems in no hurry to do it. I had suggested to the state legislature that if it were taking over Atlanta’s airport, it should take over Macon’s as well and combine them into an airport authority.

With the takeover of Hartsfield not happening, it still makes sense to transfer the Middle Georgia Regional Airport into a regional airport authority. Houston County has no incentive to help, even though the airport benefits the base. The flight from Macon to Baltimore is frequently full of people heading into the Washington metropolitan area for work. But Houston County is, right now, left to hope it might one day enter into a partnership with Robins Air Force Base to land commercial jets there. Who could blame them given the way Macon and now Bibb County have handled their airport.

Middle Georgia has capacity that could benefit from the congestion in Atlanta on both its runways and highways. Its leaders, however, need to make some compromises and start pooling resources. They should start with the airport.

Bibb County seems always to be settling. It got left behind by the Olympics in 1996 and seems perpetually expecting to get left behind with everything else. It does not have to be, but going it alone will ensure it gets left behind. The counties in Middle Georgia need to work together right now.

Erick Erickson is host of Atlanta’s Evening News on WSB Radio.

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