Georgia taxpayers own 11.5% of the state’s railroad infrastructure, will spend money for upgrades

(The Center Square) — Georgia famously built the Western & Atlantic Railroad between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tennessee, more than 170 years ago, but today the state’s railroad holdings have grown to include several shortline railroads.

Georgia’s rail network has 4,684 miles of track, which in 2021 was the seventh largest in the nation. The Georgia Department of Transportation owns 540 miles of track, including about 465 miles of active rail lines.

The American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association doesn’t keep detailed records on who owns railroad tracks. However, it is not necessarily uncommon for a state to own rail lines.

“When states or local governments acquire railroad property, it’s usually done to prevent the complete abandonment of a rail corridor and allow the state to try to find a way to continue or restore rail service, often in conjunction with a short line partner,” Amy Krouse, vice president of communications for the ASLRRA, told The Center Square. “On rare occasions we see a government entity own track and operate a railroad, but that is not the norm.”

The state currently leases the Western & Atlantic to CSX Transportation, paying roughly $1.2 billion over the next 50 years to lease the line.

The Georgia Department of Transportation did not respond to requests for more information about the state-owned rail lines.

However, in its 2021 state rail plan, GDOT said the “limited traffic base on short line railroads may not generate sufficient revenues to fund needed maintenance.” Additionally, a survey of Georgia short line railroads conducted for the state rail plan found $39.3 million in rail line rehabilitation needs.

When the plan was developed, roughly 286 miles of Georgia’s rail network could not accommodate the heaviest railcars in use on railroads today. With the limitation, shippers must either use smaller cars or “short-load” their cars.

Upgrading the state’s rail network has been a focus of Georgia.

Earlier this year, state officials said they planned to spend about $10 million to upgrade state-owned rail lines to Class II standards, which officials said would better integrate the lines with the national rail network and allow faster speeds. In June, the federal government said it was sending more than $9.1 million for a pair of rehabilitation projects on Georgia-owned Class III railroads.

But the Georgia Department of Economic Development said the lines are critical to their efforts.

“Georgia’s railroads provide a vital logistics link for companies, alleviating road congestion and helping companies meet growing consumer demand and ever-increasing goals for efficiency,” the agency said in a statement to The Center Square.

“Additionally, rail is becoming more and more important as freight volumes grow at the Port of Savannah and the necessity to move containers further inland to enhance throughput operations becomes even more critical,” the agency added. “Railroads are a key selling point for doing business in the State of Georgia and aid in our state’s overall economy.”