Is Georgia serious about rail?

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

The Georgia Department of Transportation has been updating citizens on the state rail plan, a federally mandated blueprint for passenger and freight. Though the state has little passenger rail service to speak of — two Amtrak lines — Georgia has to be current and prepared should opportunities arise, and to capitalize on federal dollars for projects. Today, a GDOT director outlines the strategy, while a transportation policy veteran refers to it as just so much lip service.

Commenting is open.

Freight rules rails, for now

By Carol Comer

The Georgia Department of Transportation is updating the state’s rail plan — the articulation of our vision for safe, sustainable, environmentally sound, energy-efficient passenger and freight rail service.

Yes, that’s a mouthful. And I recognize that passenger rail — or perhaps more succinctly, the lack thereof — tends to capture the biggest headlines and generate the most discussion when Georgians speak of rail.

But I suggest it is important we first recognize the full spectrum of our transportation network to bring any single component into focus. That network has many components. Youngsters walking to school, bicyclists on a trail, bus and rail transit riders, commuters, tractor trailers, trains, airplanes, cargo ships — all are elements of the various systems that, in totality, make up Georgia’s transportation network. An individual system’s role might increase or diminish periodically for any number of reasons.

True, passenger rail service in Georgia today is to some extent more aspirational than robust: an Amtrak route through Atlanta, and another through Savannah. Passenger rail may well come to play a bigger role; we hope it can. But there is another rail system that already plays a vital role right now and helps improve the life of probably every Georgian: freight rail.

While most of us likely don’t come into direct contact with it regularly, freight rail is here, and it’s huge. The two major players, CSX and Norfolk Southern, own more than 4,600 miles of track in Georgia on which they move nearly 190 million tons of freight a year, a number forecast to increase to 217 million tons by 2040.

They are complemented by 29 “short line” railroads that, for the most part, serve businesses and industries in smaller Georgia communities. These are regional lines that operate on another 1,000-plus miles of track, 540 of which they lease from GDOT. While their impacts may be smaller in scale, just ask leaders of the rural Georgia communities they serve how important short lines are; better yet, ask the workers whose jobs they’ve saved.

Freight rail helps sustain more than 600,000 Georgia jobs and adds more than $54 billion to the state’s economy. It links our ports and distribution centers to virtually every community in the state and thousands more across the South, East and Midwest. (Not to mention, freight rail takes thousands of trucks off our highways.)

A primary Georgia DOT freight rail responsibility is the development of short line infrastructure. We are responsible for the safety and maintenance of the track and 176 bridges on the 540 miles we own. We do so solely with annual appropriations from the General Assembly. This year, we received less than a fourth of the $40 million we recommend devoting to it annually.

We understand, though. In the state Legislature and Congress, there is intense demand and fierce competition for limited public funds. Which brings us back to passenger rail and the tens of billions of dollars it will take to turn aspiration into reality.

Georgia DOT’s duty is to plan and be prepared to implement passenger rail should our elected leaders so decide. We are prepared. We consult regularly with our colleagues in Tennessee, the Carolinas and at the Federal Rail Administration. We will meet this month with partners from six other Southern Rail Commission states to share strategies. Already, we have made preliminary determinations that passenger rail links between Atlanta and Columbus, Birmingham, Louisville, Charlotte and Jacksonville would be feasible.

Advancing from preliminary feasibility to environmentally acceptable, economically viable and operationally sustainable is a lengthy, complicated, expensive — and speculative — process. It may happen; it may not.

Regardless, make no mistake: Rail already is, and always will be, an integral component of Georgia’s overall transportation network.

Carol Comer is director of the Georgia Department of Transportation’s intermodal division.

Giving hope to state’s lip service

By Doug Alexander

Since the 1980s, various private organizations and state agencies have been developing and promoting plans for commuter and intercity passenger rail in Georgia. These plans have always had an uphill climb against entrenched highway interests, as well as the usual bureaucratic lethargy that doesn’t like doing new things or dealing with different ideas.

Despite these obstacles, there was, in the early 2000s, a small glimmer of hope that two of the eight proposed commuter train routes could actually see passenger service. Athens-to-Atlanta and Macon-to-Atlanta trains, according to state studies, could carry lots of people and help lighten some of the traffic burden on the highways by providing a reliable and affordable transportation alternative for commuters.

There was some federal and state money in place for both routes and for a “multi-modal passenger terminal” in downtown Atlanta. Federally mandated environmental assessments had been completed for both routes. Amazingly, after reviewing each 5-foot-tall stack of reports, the EPA admitted that putting passenger trains on existing rail lines would have “no significant impact” on the environment.

Georgia had spent $13 million and five years to discover that there were no snail darters anywhere along the two routes.

That was the high point for the Passenger Rail Program. Shortly after receiving the OK from the EPA, the program was hit with shifts in federal funding formulas and in the political direction of our state government. The faint hope receded.

But there would be one additional sliver of hope before all light was cut off. When Gina Evans became state Department of Transportation commissioner at the insistence of Gov. Sonny Perdue, she right away began going off script by stating Georgia would build a commuter rail system. She lasted 14 months in the job.

And yet, though the Georgia Rail Passenger Program has withered on the vine, it still lives in the shadows of GDOT’s statewide rail plan.

This plan, updated every five years, has several functions. One is to document how the railroad industry is doing in Georgia. Keeping tabs on the rail industry, its relative strength and its support of our economy is worthwhile in charting our state’s economy. The plan also focuses on the state’s involvement in the freight rail industry. GDOT owns over 500 miles of track throughout the state, much of it leased to short lines that keep rail service alive where big Class 1 railroads have lost interest, but where rail customers still exist and want service.

But beyond freight rail information, the other “purposes” are at best exercises in lip service. The plan goes into detail about commuter and intercity passenger train routes for which there is no money. It extols Amtrak’s future passenger loads, although there are no plans to increase capacity. It speaks to the wonders of high-speed rail and futuristic magnetic-levitation trains and imagines that Georgia is working to be a leader in these modes of transportation.

Most incomprehensibly, GDOT insists that the plan “enable(s) it to implement a more efficient and effective approach to integrate passenger and freight rail elements into the larger multi-modal transportation framework,” whatever that means.

This lip service is paid because Washington wants to believe that Georgia is sincere about implementing passenger rail. Washington hears what it wants to hear, and federal dollars continue to flow for another five years.

This lip service is paid so that when the state’s cities and counties insist that they need transportation alternatives such as commuter rail, the state can point to its statewide rail plan.

Most important for GDOT, this lip service is paid so that it can continue building roads, which is all that it really wants to do anyway. In its heart, such as it is, GDOT has never stopped being the state Highway Department. It probably never will.

The only way we Georgians might build the kind of transportation that can make a difference for our future is for counties and cities to band together to fund transportation initiatives, without funding or any other help from state or federal sources. By using local funds, we won’t have to spend multiple years and millions of dollars looking for snail darters.

Of course, the state has to first allow our local governments to join together for such purposes, and the state does not like giving up that kind of control. But one can always hope.

Former Atlanta City Councilman Douglas Alexander worked for six years as rail program manager of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority.

 

 


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