Opinion: Getting freight out of Atlanta could boost the rest of Georgia

WAYCROSS — This gateway to the Okefenokee was, like a certain city once called Terminus, named in relation to the railroads. The “Ways Cross” from six directions here; in what became Atlanta there originally were only two.

Things have changed. But the movement of goods still offers needs and opportunities for both Georgia’s capital and its rural areas.

Waycross played host this past week to the sixth set of meetings for the House Rural Development Council. Lawmakers spent one day hearing about forestry, an industry in which Georgia leads the nation. They spent the other on transportation.

Those in metro Atlanta know all too well about their overmatched roads and underdeveloped transit systems. They may have less of an appreciation for how developing roads and rails elsewhere in the state could take some pressure off Atlanta’s network while giving a boost to struggling communities.

This isn’t about building “four-lanes to nowhere,” as Atlantans often deride so-called developmental highways that haven’t always spurred much development. But the state must be very intentional about handling the growth from, among other things, the deepening of the port at Savannah.

It’s clear Georgia needs a better rail system for freight. It’s not so much that the network is limited, but that much of the infrastructure is in poor condition. Lawmakers in Waycross heard a good bit about the state’s “short lines,” which help connect many small towns to the big railroads (CSX and Norfolk Southern).

In many cases, these lines aren’t in good enough shape to bear the industry-standard railcar capacity of 286,000 pounds, or to maintain speeds of even 25 mph. They must carry less weight and move more slowly — inefficiencies that mean more cargo ends up being hauled by truck.

That puts more trucks on crowded highways. It also exacerbates a shortage of truck drivers. Georgia is already expanding its highways and trying to entice more students into truck-driver programs at its technical colleges. But in most cases, the inadequate short lines are owned by the state and leased to private operators, which put some of their own capital into maintenance but not enough to upgrade the lines quickly.

It might make more sense for the state to improve these assets than to deal with the ramifications of keeping them in poor shape. That could be done through direct appropriations or through tax credits, which the federal government and some states use to induce more private investment.

Ultimately, though, those kinds of measures might be necessary but insufficient.

Once the Savannah harbor deepening is complete, hundreds of thousands of more tractor-trailers could hit our roads. Simply keeping congestion as bad as it is today could be a tall order (and that’s before we talk about population growth, and perhaps 1 million more personal cars on our roads). But I dare say most of us would like it to get better.

What’s unclear is how to turn the tide. Add to existing highways? Build new ones, such as the proposed Export-Import Highway between LaGrange and Macon? Expand the rail network?

The goal shouldn’t be to pick one mode over another, but to steer freight away from Atlanta if that’s not its destination. Metro Atlanta would benefit by having fewer trucks chugging around I-285. Smaller communities could benefit by getting deeper into the logistics industry that already sustains so many jobs in Georgia.

Done right, a statewide freight strategy could do right by places otherwise as disparate as Waycross and Terminus — er, Atlanta.