Mayor Bucky Johnson: Preserve Smart Rail Regulations That Strengthen Georgia Industry, Economy

Bucky Johnson

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

Most locals already know this, but Norcross has a long and storied railroad history, with its very founding linked to the original Richmond-Danville Railroad in the mid-nineteenth century. What started as a 20-mile line in 1869 is today part of Norfolk Southern’s regional network, connected to the rest of the 140,000-mile nationwide freight rail network.

Now, as always, freight rail is a critical connector for Georgia business and industry, efficiently and reliably hauling raw materials to manufacturers, finished goods to and from our ports, and everything in between for consumers. Trains boast obvious benefits due to their scale; they can carry the load of several hundred trucks while also cutting down on emissions by 75 percent on average.

Freight railroads are also private companies that have collectively invested about $26 billion annually over the last several years into their operations and infrastructure. This is key in Georgia, where the American Society of Civil Engineers most recently gave us a “C” grade on overall infrastructure. One economic analysis looking at rail’s private investments showed $10 returns to the economy for every $1 spent by railroads.

These stats – and the private dollars that power them – are good news for Georgia’s business community, drivers and environment. But they could soon be in jeopardy from a set of proposals under consideration at the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, the government body charged with economically regulating railroads.

Among several policy changes that would economically reregulate railroads, one proposal called “forced access” is especially problematic. It would compel rail companies to open their private lines to their competitors at rates and schedules determined by the government. This would be like the government intervening to force the Falcons to open their brand-new stadium for use by other teams, and also dictating the financial and logistical terms of the deal.

This isn’t just an overreach, it’s a policy that could cut rail investment and lead to inefficiencies across the whole network given the immense complexity of switching operations.

When railroads faced overregulation in the past, they were on the brink of collapse and bankruptcy. Smart policy, enacted in 1980, removed government from day-to-day operations, allowing rail carriers to earn enough to keep investing in infrastructure. The results are a doubling in productivity, a 79 percent decrease in the train accident rate and a 45 percent drop in shipping costs since 1980.

For shippers in Georgia and the rest of the nation, forced access would mean a backed-up network and unreliable service. Rail unions and several major shippers, including UPS, have come out against the policy for this reason and concerns about safety. One estimate says government-mandated rail traffic controls could affect an estimated 7.5 million carloads of traffic.

The Georgia Ports Authority recently announced that it plans to invest $128 million to expand rail lines at the Port of Savannah. The reasoning is clear: reliable infrastructure, and freight rail in particular, is the necessary foundation for a bustling business and a strong economy, especially as our state prepares to meet increased freight demand over the next several decades. Officials at the STB and policymakers in Washington, D.C., should keep this in mind and reject new regulations that would ultimately undermine our freight rail network and economy.