Report: Boost spending $1.5 billion to handle Georgia freight

A new report says Georgia should boost spending on road and rail improvements by up to $1.5 billion a year to keep freight moving across the state. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
A new report says Georgia should boost spending on road and rail improvements by up to $1.5 billion a year to keep freight moving across the state. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

A legislative panel recommends Georgia spend up to $1.5 billion more a year on road and rail improvements to keep freight moving across the state.

The money could come from new fuel taxes, transportation user fees, levies on home-delivered packages, or assessments on warehouse and distribution facilities, the report said. The investment the panel recommends would be a dramatic increase in transportation spending — the Georgia Department of Transportation’s current budget is about $3.4 billion a year.

It’s unclear whether any of that money will be raised by the General Assembly in the legislative session that began Monday. But House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, says improvements to Georgia’s freight transportation network are a top priority for him.

“It will require a significant investment,” Ralston told reporters at a press conference last week. “It’s also, I think, very, very crucial to further expansion of our economy here in this state.”

Freight movement is, indeed, a massive industry in Georgia. A report issued last year by the Georgia Commission on Freight and Logistics found the industry directly employed 181,000 people in 2018.

The commission expects a 30% increase in freight movement in Georgia by 2045. But an e-commerce explosion brought on by the coronavirus pandemic may accelerate that timetable.

For instance, according to the commission’s latest report, nationwide online spending was up 77% in May from the same month the previous year. Not surprisingly, GDOT says that while highway traffic fell during the pandemic, truck traffic has increased.

Meanwhile, the logistics industry faces long-term challenges, including a lack of truck parking, major traffic bottlenecks and a shortage of truck drivers.

Funding for road and rail improvements also is a key issue. GDOT estimates such work will cost $135 billion to $153 billion over the next 30 years.

Among other things, the commission’s report recommends doubling the proportion of freight carried on rail statewide from 17% to 35%, keeping traffic on Georgia interstate highways moving at 45 mph or higher and otherwise addressing traffic congestion in urban areas.

The report recommends boosting funding by $1 billion to $1.5 billion to pay for road and rail work. It does not recommend a specific funding plan, but it offers lawmakers a variety of options.

It’s unclear whether lawmakers will raise taxes or fees this year to pay for those improvements.

Ralston told reporters it’s among his top priorities.

“It’s something we really, really need to do at some point sooner, rather than later,” Ralston said.

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