Opinion: How rural Georgia can help ease Atlanta’s traffic woes

AJC file photo / Hyosub Shin

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.​

Reader Comments 0

25 comments
LikeMadison
LikeMadison

"...overmatched roads and underdeveloped transit systems..."
Really?  Name a single proposed transit project that will do anything to relieve congestion.  NOT!I suggest we take the $$billions proposed for transit and put it into creating additional E-W road capacity and a real trucks-only bypass of the city.

breckenridge
breckenridge

The state managed to scrounge up the money for the Northwest Corridor project.  Why not light rail to accompany it?

breckenridge
breckenridge

I remember when the Doraville MARTA station opened back when.  A few months after it had started operation I had to go to the airport one morning.  So, I tooled over to the station only to find there was nary a whiff of a parking spot to be had.  In fact, the station could use a few hundred more parking spots.


The people of metro Atlanta will use mass transit. But then you run into the stupid losers like Cobb County, which says no-way to a Suntrust Park train line.

FIGMO2
FIGMO2

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.

The rail line from northern Clayton County and south to the panhandle has been undergoing improvements for several years now. 

McGarnagle
McGarnagle

I agree that too many times I see too many big trailers on 285. Just adds to the congestion. Unfortunately I think the short term answer is more roads. But the long term answer is automated driver-less trailers. They will drive 24/7 with no need to sleep or eat. And they can take longer routes to avoid traffic.

jhgm63
jhgm63

Just curious, how did the state acquire those short lines, did it build them, purchase them or take them over. Any reason why they don't sell them off to the private sector?

DeepStateDawg
DeepStateDawg

I agree. Investment in and planning for transportation is needed.


But ... Georgia doesn't need a better rail system since it does not own one. Nor should it own one. 


How could a state government telling (er, incentivizing) a private business what to do part of the discussion? 


Not too dissimilar to the broad band topic a few weeks ago. These companies are just doing their thing, competing in a free market. 


If one of those dim's suggested what you just did, it'd be yet another example of big guvmint socialistic totalitarianism, whatever that is. 

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@DeepStateDawg "But ... Georgia doesn't need a better rail system since it does not own one. Nor should it own one. "

From the column: "in most cases, the inadequate short lines are owned by the state ..."

DeepStateDawg
DeepStateDawg

@Kyle_Wingfield @DeepStateDawg Ok. So....


Shouldn't the recommendation be that the state divest itself of those assets and allow the private sector to create more value with them? Should the state be in that business? If there's a market demand there, the investment will happen correct? 


Again, I'm all for transportation planning. I'm a fan. And what you say makes sense. 


But it is inconsistent with the general theme of conservative ideology, and in this case doubly so. 


For one thing, planning is akin to socialism, and is not market based.  


And for another thing, the state should not own or manage assets that are being leverage for commercial purposes. This is not market based either. 

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@DeepStateDawg "planning is akin to socialism"

Anyone inclined to take your comment seriously should have figured out what you were up to right there.

ATLAquarius
ATLAquarius

Kyle 


I know taxes are bad in all cases but isn't it incumbent upon our conservative legislature to start dealing with the issue of the cost of infrastructure and transportation in a realistic way? I get that you don't want to fund a regional rail system but the state is not funding the maintenance nor the growth of the road system in Atlanta or elsewhere because apparently you can't talk about taxes. So there will be talk of tolled lanes etc and we will playing catch up. Is there even a conservative solution for proper build-out of infrastructure? What is the problem with thinking big and selling it to the voting public or are those days just over for our country?

ATLAquarius
ATLAquarius

@Kyle_Wingfield @ATLAquarius Not at all....I think that we can concur that money is essentially to build out arterials that should have been expanded in the 90s during the most explosive growth in the area...the 400/285 interchange is a prime example of items that should have been addressed many years ago that would alone consume the 1B....we are catching up but the price to accomodate the few extra million people anticipated in the metro by 2050 is still being handled in study committees

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@ATLAquarius I don't disagree that we are playing catch-up. But I think it's quite wrong to say we need to "start dealing with the issue." We've started. We may not be done, but we've started.

RoadScholar
RoadScholar

@Kyle_Wingfield @ATLAquarius My office handled the first layouts for rebuilding I285/SR400 in 1994! The Abernathy Road interchange in 1988. Yeah we are addressing transportation now, but at this pace....


And when will there be transit options for SR400 and I 285? Where is the REVIVE I 285 enviro report? Approval?

Caius
Caius

First where is the money going to come from? The state wants to cut government revenue and the feds are trying to cut government revenue. Show me the money!


RoadScholar
RoadScholar

Kyle, good commentary and points made.But there are issues that the state may not be able to  overcome.


One big issue in the state improving rail lines in Georgia is that they do not own or have rights to the existing networks beyond the "short lines". This is evidenced by the state's desire to have high speed,inter and intra city passenger rail. Where is it? I know you will say it is not cost effective, but each study to date references the railroads autonomy over the present rail system. They do not like to mix freight with passenger rail.


This existing system has needs for additional trackage that the railroads have not provided since it also could be used for passenger rail. Areas like around Lenox Square north on the rail corridor, which is the main corridor to the NE, have been identified for a third pair of tracks...to handle just freight. Other locations need rerouting/additional trackage (the gulch in downtown Atlanta for instance) that has not been done.


Also having a rail center in Waycross does nothing for Atlanta traffic. A rail hub in north Georgia on the I 75 corridor,i.e. Dalton, is needed to bypass Atlanta traffic. But will the railroads make the improvements needed for a rail distribution hub and the safety of the existing corridors and the crossings that would be affected by more, heavier traffic?

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@RoadScholar 1. The state does own one of the major Class I railways: the Western & Atlantic line running from Atlanta to Chattanooga, which CSX leases. (The lease is up in 2019.) But to your point, in terms of state investment we are only really talking about the state-owned short lines. As I wrote, this is necessary but insufficient.

2. Agree. And ideally we would be talking about new routing OTP more than additional routing ITP.

3. Don't get hung up too much on Waycross itself, which is simply where the meeting was held. As I tried to make clear, this is really more about rural Georgia generally. ICYMI the state already is building a rail hub (intermodal facility) just north of Chatsworth, i.e. just east of Dalton. Expect to see more of that in strategic locations around the state. In the case of the Chatsworth facility, it's a public-private collaboration between the state, local government and Norfolk Southern. I think that's the template for others moving forward (although there is also a wholly private intermodal facility in Cordele already up and running).

Mayretta J. Slobberknock
Mayretta J. Slobberknock

@Kyle_Wingfield @RoadScholar FYI, Waycross is already a rail center and has been forever, with two big rail yards. One is a maintenance yard and the other a "hump yard," where the cars are sorted into the long trains you see going down the tracks.

bendedknee
bendedknee

Getting a massive intermodal  rail yard for container traffic in the heart of downtown Atlanta moved to a location  outside the Perimeter would be a good beginning;


Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

 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.

That's pretty appalling.