Assessment to Implementation

After public meetings in April and August, GDOT will soon finalize an update to Georgia’s State Rail Plan. This plan is required under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act and is a prerequisite for certain federal funds. The previous version of the plan, adopted in 2009, focuses on the status of Georgia’s existing rail network and provides a high level assessment of the state’s rail needs. But the 2009 version lacks a clear strategy for how to address Georgia’s rail needs in light of limited funding and restrictions on the use of state motor fuel tax receipts. As a result, Georgia’s rail program has not advanced much in the intervening years.

The Southern Environmental Law Center submitted written comments to GDOT on the Rail Plan Update, including five recommendations for how to build the business case for rail investment in Georgia.

  1. The Rail Plan Update Should Include a Review of the Rail Programs in Peer States.

The obstacles to greater rail investment are not unique to Georgia. Every state faces limited transportation funding and many states have similar legal restrictions on the use of gas tax revenues. To increase Georgia’s implementation of its rail program, it should begin by surveying how other states have addressed these same obstacles. This survey should not only include the amount of funds available, but also the sources of those funds and the process for prioritizing projects. After completing this peer state survey, the Rail Plan Update should recommend a target investment amount and funding program (or suite of programs) that could be used to achieve the necessary level of rail investment.

  1. The Rail Plan Update Should Identify Georgia’s Top Priority Rail Projects and Quantify the Benefits of Those Projects.

The Rail Plan Update should not only identify Georgia’s rail needs in the aggregate, but also provide a method for quantifying the benefits of particular projects and prioritizing their relative importance. Rail projects are too often dismissed as costly and ineffective, but these criticisms are frequently founded on a lack of information and appreciation of the projects’ benefits. Clearly stating the benefits of individual projects and committing to use performance as the basis for selecting projects will help build the necessary support for a more robust rail program.

  1. The Rail Plan Update Should Identify Existing Rail Investment Opportunities.

The Rail Plan Update should also identify methods for funding rail projects that are currently under-utilized or under-deployed in Georgia.  For example, Georgia should explore greater use of public-private partnerships as a tool for delivering road projects. Georgia uses P3s with increasing frequency for road projects, but the state’s P3 law covers rail projects as well. Both freight and passenger rail offer unique opportunities to partner with the private sector.

Georgia could also fund the non-road accounts in the State Infrastructure Bank to help finance rail projects. Initial seed funding in these accounts could be used to establish a revolving loan program for rail projects throughout the state.

Georgia should also take greater advantage of the flexibility provided in existing federal program funds. Several existing federal programs, including the National Highway System Program, the Surface Transportation Program, and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program, can be used for rail projects in the right circumstances. Georgia should offset the limits on its state gas tax funds by prioritizing the use of these flexible federal funds for non-road projects.

The State Rail Plan Update should carefully examine these and other policies as strategies to facilitate greater rail investment in the state.

  1. Georgia Should Integrate Its Roadway and Intermodal Planning.

Georgia should also work to better integrate its road and rail planning. Whether moving freight or people, Georgia’s transportation needs are expected to continue growing over coming years. Finding the most efficient, and cost-effective, ways to meet these needs requires GDOT to look for the best solution irrespective of mode. This analysis should include identifying areas where rail might be a more cost effective solution (such as long distance transportation of commuters or freight) and carefully examining the projects in the pipeline to ensure that rail options are fully vetted in these situations.

  1. GDOT Must Position Itself To Capitalize on Unexpected Opportunities.

Even if funding for rail projects is currently limited, GDOT should nonetheless continue developing a pipeline of projects in order to capitalize on unanticipated funding opportunities. When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was adopted in 2009, states with shovel-ready rail projects reaped the benefit of unanticipated federal funding through the law’s intercity rail and TIGER programs. At the state level, Georgia’s Transportation Investment Act and the upcoming referendum on MARTA in Clayton County presented (or will present) opportunities for rail investment not anticipated when the last State Rail Plan was drafted.

It would be shortsighted to assume that the only funding opportunities available in the future are those available today. Accordingly, GDOT should ensure that it has high quality, shovel-ready projects in the pipeline so Georgia can capitalize on any future funding opportunities.

 

These five steps alone will not transform Georgia’s rail program. But they are logical first steps to help move the State Rail Plan from a wish list to a to-do list.