The Possibilities for Rail Expansion in Georgia
The United States is on the brink of a major expansion in freight and passenger rail lines. Thanks in part to a $66 billion rail investment in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Georgia lawmakers have the opportunity to pursue new statewide rail projects. In the past 10 years, Georgia’s population grew by over 1 million people, or approximately a 10 percent increase. To improve the lives of Georgians and communities across the state, Georgia lawmakers must capitalize on the momentum brought by federal investment to expand statewide rail networks.
Furthermore, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) rated Georgia’s overall infrastructure at a C+ in 2019. The report estimates scores based on eight criteria: capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience, and innovation. Based on these criteria, the infrastructure is graded from exceptional to failing. Georgia’s C+ infrastructure is rated as mediocre, meaning it is in fair condition but it requires significant attention.
Not only is Georgia the epicenter of railways in the Southeast, but the state’s rail infrastructure also serves as an economical energy source for residents and businesses. In 2020, the Georgia DOT estimated that rail services create over $160 billion in economic output and over 800,000 jobs. These railway services also generate significant tax revenue––$6.5 billion–– for the entire state and local governments. There are other added benefits to rail expansion. For one, rail networks are likely to spur urban redevelopment in cities; moreover, rail development creates long-term benefits for residents by reducing congestion costs and traffic fatalities.
Studies are already underway to evaluate the potential of new railways. In 2022, $8 million was awarded to the Georgia DOT to research a potential high-speed train running from Atlanta to Savannah, giving residents more connectivity throughout the state. If completed, this project would link Amtrak’s Crescent and Silver Star lines, and it would provide residents of other states a fast travel alternative to Savannah and Atlanta. There are also opportunities for commuter rail expansion within the state. One proposal––the so-called “Brain Train”––would link the city of Athens to Atlanta, Greenville, SC, and Charlotte, NC. Even though the project was approved by the Georgia DOT back in 2004, it remains in limbo because of funding restrictions and concerns by some residents. Nonetheless, commuter rail would connect more rural parts of Georgia with urban and metropolitan centers.
Already the Georgia Legislature has made progress in rail investment. In 2021, Gov. Kemp signed SB 371, which established the Georgia Freight Railroad Program to be administered by GDOT. The program establishes a commission that is essentially a governing body “to enhance the state’s investment in freight rail projects for public benefit and to support a safe and balanced transportation system for the state.”
Furthermore, HR 935 (signed in 2020) created the Georgia Commission of Freight and Logistics to study the state’s rail network infrastructure. In its report to the Speaker of the House and Senate President, the commission called for significant investment by the legislature to double statewide freight movement via rail from 17 to 35 percent. To meet these goals, the State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) could expand its current operations to meet the over $1 billion in revenue needed for new rail projects.
Moving forward, Georgia lawmakers should also consider efforts by other states to revamp passenger rail systems. For example, Virginia passed a $3.7 billion project in 2020 that will enhance passenger and freight rail corridors between the state’s northern cities. Lawmakers there are actively working with major freight carriers––Norfolk Southern and CSX––to share the right of way for new rail lines. Funding for the project is generated at federal, state, and regional levels. To meet Georgia’s growing demands for rail infrastructure, the state legislature must not only consider taking advantage of a diversity of revenue sources but also identify key regions that would most benefit from rail expansion. By putting money from state and federal sources to good use, Georgia’s communities will become stronger and more connected.