Georgia needs to pay attention to California train rule

It would be an unforced error if the EPA were to grant a waiver request, slowing operations across the entire U.S. rail network.
(AJC File photo)

(AJC File photo)

Georgia Gov. Brian P. Kemp recently approved $1.5 billion in transportation funding as part of his fiscal 2024 and 2025 budgets, allocating money to grow Georgia’s freight and logistics network. At the same time, HB 617, sponsored by House Transportation Chairman Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, and Senate Transportation Chairman Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, would create a statewide freight and logistics implementation program, guiding Georgia’s infrastructure investments in our critical supply chain industry.

These commitments by our state leaders will drive efficiency, safety and reliability between hubs, railroads and ports. Their foresight will help our state continue to harness rail connections for economic development.

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

However, much of this progress could be slowed if the federal government adopts California’s recent harmful railroad emissions proposal. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has proposed requiring “zero emissions” locomotives in California by 2035, even though the technology does not exist today as a commercially viable option. The rule would effectively ban some 25,000 useful locomotives because they are more than 23 years old — and with no adequate replacement.

In a joint letter delivered to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on May 14, Georgia Reps. Drew Ferguson, Mike Collins and Rick Allen joined 70 of their colleagues in raising concerns about the rule, including its technological feasibility. “One would need a battery capacity of 80 to 100 MWh to fully replace a diesel engine in a locomotive; however, the largest batteries being built for use in North America today hold less than 10 MWh of energy,” they wrote. Even the U.S. Department of Energy stated a goal of a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 — far from the CARB edict.

In addition to setting economically unrealistic standards and timelines, the California plan would also require railroads to establish state-monitored “spending accounts” totaling as much as $800 million per year, per railroad. CARB has itself noted that the provision would force about 20% of small railroads in California out of business.

These unnecessary spending accounts would siphon finite financial resources from other, more critical rail priorities. For example, since opening the Mason Mega Rail terminal — the largest on-dock rail facility in North America — Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) has consistently marked record volumes. GPA is now building a second inland rail terminal in Gainesville to link Northeast Georgia with the Port of Savannah via daily rail service. But the financial burdens of CARB compliance could undercut what railroads are able to spend on their infrastructure — jeopardizing our state plans that emphasize rail connectivity.

Rail helps Georgia businesses compete because it is typically the most affordable option for shippers. Last year, Atlanta-headquartered Norfolk Southern partnered with 62 customers to complete strategic industrial development projects that represented $3.1 billion in investment and created more than 4,000 jobs.

For context, 29 different freight railroads operate in Georgia, two large, “Class I” railroads and 27 “short lines,” running over almost 5,000 miles of track to deliver raw inputs and finished goods. These trains take 9 million truckloads off our roads — each year. Nationally, rail moves about 40% of long-distance freight but produces less than 2% of transportation emissions — easily the most efficient way to move freight on land.

It would be an unforced error if the EPA were to grant the waiver request from CARB — undercutting private rail investment in Georgia and hurting businesses by slowing operations across the entire U.S. rail network. About 65% of the nation’s locomotive fleet enters California in a year, meaning the entire rail network would face disruption. And though the rule is currently limited to California, federal approval of a waiver would make it far easier to adopt in other states.

Our leaders in Georgia are focused on infrastructure and how we can lean on rail for our economy, people and environment. I hope federal regulators at the EPA will oppose policies such as the CARB rule that would contract and undermine the rail network when we need it the most.

Seth Millican is the executive director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance.