Interstates bring $8.6 billion to Georgia economy

By Ed Brock

Sitting in the office of his Mo-Joe's franchise a stone's throw from I-675, Doug Drummond says he knows it's the interstate that has made his venture successful.

"When we were at the other location we weren't getting the traveling traffic, we weren't getting the trucking traffic," Drummond said. "Now the word is getting out among the truckers that this is a good place to eat."

The word is out among more local customers as well.

"Our terminal is a couple of exits north of here," FedEx delivery driver Michael Lawrence said. "When we have tractor trailers it's easier for parking."

"And the food's basically pretty quick," Lawrence said.

Working for the competition, UPS driver Dana Costello often makes deliveries to the Mo-Joes at the intersection of I-675 and Ga. Highway 42. Doing what he does for a living, Costello said, he appreciates the fast-food restaurants that spring up along many interstate interchanges.

"It's convenient," Costello said.

Businesses like Drummond's contribute some $8.6 billion to Georgia's economy in terms of sales and $1.3 billion in taxes, according to a University of Maryland study cited by the NATSO Foundation. The NATSO Foundation describes itself in a statement as a "charitable subsidiary of the truck stop and travel plaza industry."

According to the foundation, there are 136 fuel stops along Georgia's highways, 832 gas stations, 819 hotels or motels, 71 repair facilities, 2,129 restaurants and 58 truckstops.

But those aren't the only businesses fed by the interstate system. Entire communities profit from their proximity to the larger highways built across the nation after the passage of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.

"The reason we have Southlake Mall is because of I-75," Morrow City Manager John Lampl said.

But the interstate giveth and it taketh away, Lampl said. In college he wrote a thesis paper on the effect the construction of I-75 had on communities built along old state routes like Ga. Highway 19/41.

Many of those communities shrank with the coming of the interstate.

"For those fortunate few that were on Highway 19/41 and were near I-75, they grew at a phenomenal rate," Lampl said.

Now Morrow draws tourists from around the country as well as shoppers from local areas. They're drawn to the town's safe, family oriented atmosphere, Lampl said.

"It's like being in Atlanta without being in Atlanta," Lampl said.

At Morrow's new welcome center perched near the exit from Jonesboro Road to I-75's westbound lanes, some 35 people a day stop for information or a break from long drives. One family from Florida met relatives from Massachusetts at the center as they were driving to each other's respective states, Morrow's Director of Tourism Lisa Sewell said.

"It was so cool, they had a little picnic out on the porch," Sewell said.

The city is applying for grants to make the center a state welcome center as well, and being next to an interstate is a requirement for achieving that goal, Sewell said.

But right behind the welcome center, Ray J's Barbecue owner Ray Johnson complains that he has no sign advertising his presence to drivers on the nearby highway.

"Unless they come into Cracker Barrel (next door to Johnson's restaurant) we don't get no business off the highway," Johnson said. "If we had some exposure on the highway we'd do really well."

There's another threat to interstate businesses that concerns the NATSO Foundation, the possible commercialization of federal rest areas along the interstates.

"The Federal Highway Administration's recommendation (made to Congress during this year's federal transportation reauthorization) to commercialize interstate rest areas would virtually devastate over 76,000 businesses that employ two million people at our nation's interchanges," NATSO President and CEO William D. Fay said in a statement.

Some states already have commercialized rest stops, such as those along the Florida turnpike that runs through the state, Lampl said. But Clayton County need not worry about the possible impact of having a McDonald's at every rest stop because there aren't any rest stops near the Atlanta metro area.

"I think it would take a long time for them to deal with the learning curve," Lampl said. "And I don't think it would be critical to begin with."