FILE - GA Railroad, train

A railroad employee leans out from a CSX railroad locomotive as it approaches a street crossing in Athens, Georgia.

(The Center Square) – Georgia lawmakers are looking for ways to secure funding to meet the state's unmet freight infrastructure needs.

Georgia's growing population and the COVID-19 pandemic have increased the state's demand for e-commerce and freight loads. The Legislature's Joint Study Committee for the Georgia Commission on E-Commerce and Freight Infrastructure Funding met for the first this week to assess Georgia's freight, logistics and e-commerce industries.

"Georgia will have the fifth-largest population in the nation, with over 12 million people," former state Rep. Kevin Tanner said Monday during a presentation in front of the committee. "With 84% of freight moving on trucks, it is vital that we plan now to keep everyday motorists moving safely while also ensuring Georgia remains the number one state in which to do business. A critical piece of the transportation puzzle is the utilization of freight to move goods."

Lawmakers estimate Georgia would need more than $887 million over the next 25 years to support its rail system in addition to maintenance costs. Georgia has 4,765 miles of active rails, according to a Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) report.

To keep the industries moving, lawmakers said the state needs to invest in workforce development, especially in a trucking industry that has been hit with driver shortages, which have been amplified by the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic increased online spending across the nation as Americans were ordered to stay home and to social distance. Daily nationwide online sales from May 2020 to the end of June 2020 hit more than $2 billion. In Georgia, online spending was up 77% in May 2020 compared with May 2019.

In a freight and logistics study, lawmakers found that trucking companies had a hard time finding and retaining drivers because of pay, hours of work and the state's lack of truck parking.

"We're seeing that today across the spectrum with delays and getting product shipped, as a fact, we just don't have enough drivers to do the deliveries," said Tanner, who co-chaired of the joint Georgia Commission on Freight and Logistics.

Tanner said the state needs to take "the leadership role" in creating more parking spaces by forming partnerships in the private sector. He also believes public-private partnerships may be the solution to funding the rail system's unmet needs over the next 30 years.

Lawmakers believe moving cargo from the state's roads to its rails could reduce traffic congestion and increase shipping speeds, ultimately meeting the higher demands.

The General Assembly has approved $84.7 million in bonds since fiscal year 2018 for rehabilitation and repair of state-owned rail. Railroad industry leaders have recommended doubling the state's short line tax credit to a $7,000-per-mile credit to support infrastructure funding. Lawmakers also are considering adding a tax to items coming through the state's ports based on value, but some fear that plan could hurt Georgia's ports.

Georgia has received billions in infrastructure funding through federal COVID-19 relief packages. The state could have access to the $5 billion Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program if Congress passes its $1.2 trillion infrastructure package.

E-Commerce and Freight Infrastructure Funding Chair Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, said it would take the commission "a couple of years" to develop a funding strategy and recommendations. The commission has employed the help of a consulting firm.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for five years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.