Putting Atlanta’s future on track

A tempest has been brewing among politicians, planners, activists and advocates over a letter recently sent by the Norfolk Southern Ry. to the Georgia Department of Transportation. The letter outlined the railroad’s position on the long-proposed and hesitantly proceeding multi-modal passenger terminal, or MMPT, to be built near the sites of the late Terminal Station and Union Station in the heart of downtown Atlanta.

Rail traffic in Atlanta has been growing steadily as the economy has improved. Both Norfolk Southern and CSX, its main competitor in the South, have been making significant investments in their plants in and around Atlanta and the state to accommodate this growth.

According to the Association of American Railroads, 10.3 million truckloads of freight are moved by rail into, out of and through Georgia every year. If the Port of Savannah is deepened as is hoped and bigger cargo ships come to eastern ports instead of off-loading on the West Coast, freight moved through Georgia and Atlanta could increase exponentially. The railroads know that without new capacity, rail traffic in Atlanta could become as congested as I-285 at rush hour. Sticking passenger trains into that scenario would be a losing proposition for everyone.

With this in mind, Norfolk Southern told GDOT that while it had no objection to the development of the MMPT itself, the state and city should not expect that the railroad will be able to allow access to its tracks for commuter and/or intercity trains to use the facility. There just won't be enough room on its rails in Atlanta to move its own freight and state-sponsored passenger trains through the center of the city.

The response to this announcement was predictable. The railroad was accused of having a “bad attitude”; it lacked “concern” for the city, and it was just bring ornery. Some wailed that the hopes and dreams for downtown Atlanta’s future were ruined. Others suggested that the railroad should “meet with community” to “come up with solutions to meet everyone’s needs.” Still others insist that the MMPT ought to be at the airport, not downtown, ignoring completely the issue of getting through downtown Atlanta.

Railroads are not insensitive to public opinion. But those who represent the public first must understand that railroads are primal capitalistic creatures; their First Priority is the health of their bottom line. Railroads exist to serve their customers, not politicians or planners or activists or even cities, states or the nation.

A railroad’s main interest in any public project is that it does not harm its First Priority. Built and operated with private capital, railroads often avoid public funds and all the strings that come with them. Yet when they are convinced that a public project can benefit their First Priority, railroads have been known to become excellent partners in bringing public projects to fruition, and certainly Norfolk Southern has done its share.

Norfolk Southern’s letter does not close the door. It is instead an opening gambit. The railroads have long lists of things they want so they can serve their customers efficiently. Public funds may not only help the railroads ease their congestion issues, but they may also “pay the price” for future access for passenger trains.

But for that to happen, politicians, planners and activists need to start talking with the railroads, rather than at them as they often do. It’s hard to do, but necessary. The future depends upon it.

Doug Alexander is an Atlanta-based transportation and policy consultant.