Rail Upgrades Key For Rural Economic Growth

This week’s Courier Herald column:

The effort to fix metro Atlanta’s transit governance issue received a lot of public and press attention during this legislative session. When a problem almost a half century in the making is solved across party lines and with support of urban and rural state leaders, it’s a success that is worth noting.

The transportation issues of rural Georgia were not ignored during this session of the Georgia General Assembly, even if they received a bit less fanfare. The challenges are different, and the problems that leaders must solve are unique in rural Georgia and metro Atlanta. Because of how we move our people and goods through the state, however, the two remain inextricably linked.

In metro Atlanta, the transportation problem is congestion. In rural Georgia, the issue is one of access and economic development.

The transit governance bill for metro Atlanta wasn’t the only major bill to improve Georgia’s transportation infrastructure this year. House Bill 735, sponsored by Representative Patty Bentley (D-Butler) provides a 50% tax credit for maintenance and upgrades of Georgia’s short line railroads.

Let’s be honest. That description doesn’t lend itself to sensational headlines. Some perspective is in order.

The success and growth of Georgia’s ports has long been documented. The Port of Savannah is the largest container facility on the East Coast and is expected to double in size again over the next decade. The containers that move through the port arrive one of two ways: by truck or by train.

The Ports Authority has been investing heavily in upgrading their rail capacity to move more of their goods via rail. It helps them to extend their reach well beyond Georgia, but also helps to keep the additional truck traffic on Georgia’s roads to a minimum.

Port officials broke ground on a new rail terminal at the end of March that will increase the efficiency of rail operations. They’ll have the capability to simultaneously load trains of 10,000 feet in length – almost two miles. They estimate this will take over 200,000 trucks off of Georgia’s roads every year.

They are also adding to the number of “inland ports” that are multi-modal transfer stations from rail to truck, to allow more of Georgia to be connected to the ports via direct freight rail. The first of these stations is in Cordele Georgia, with the second opening in Murray County late summer or early fall.

What does this have to do with incentivizing the investment of short line rail operations? Short line railroads are the small rail operators that serve local communities. We’re not talking about CSX or Norfolk Southern here – the national carriers that operate long haul freight corridors.

Short line rail roads are the last mile of service. They’re the ones that often determine if a rural community has access to rail – and if that rail service is effective and competitive.

Georgia’s short line rail system has not kept pace with upgrades at the ports nor of the larger rail network. Some operate at speeds as little as 10 to 15 miles per hour, based on track layout and conditions. For shipping some raw materials this speed of operation makes sense, but to make communities served by these rail systems more competitive for a wider range of industries, upgrades are demanded.

The need for improvements was one of the main recommendations from the House Rural Development Council, a two-year study committee project chaired by Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England and Ways and Means Chairman Jay Powell. It should be noted that the committee is bi-partisan in practice. Representative Bentley, the short line bill sponsor, is a Democrat.

The tax credit allows the smaller rail operators to receive half of their investment for upgrades back, but is capped at $3,500 per mile. Thus, the state is providing an incentive while ensuring that the operators put their own skin in the game.

The desired result is that more of Georgia will be able to tie directly in to the success of Georgia’s ports in Savannah and Brunswick, as well as the network of inland ports planned around the state. The faster these “last mile” rail networks reach the standards of the main line carriers, the sooner all of Georgia has the same access and opportunity to leverage the investments made at the ports.


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