Today’s Courier Herald Column:
When I was a kid, there was one Christmas gift that was a constant on my wish lists. I was a big believer that Santa was to bring train sets. The patron saint of elves in my workshop was Tyco. Whatever train they were making that year was on the top of my list.
One of my earliest memories of Christmas was receiving my first train set. I also remember not getting to play with it that morning, as I was too young to really do anything with it. That, and my father and two uncles didn’t seem to understand sharing that day. Trains, in reality, are toys for boys of all ages.
Deep down, most of us know this. It’s part of the reason there is great skepticism when a public rail initiative is announced. Many remain unconvinced that roads aren’t a superior option over commuter rail or that modern flight doesn’t trump high speed intercity rail.
And so, when Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed floated the idea of high speed rail from Atlanta to Savannah, it is easy to dismiss the idea of an adult, now in a position of great power, wanting a bigger train set for Christmas. It should not be quickly written off as a wish list item.
A friend of mine sent me a news clip last evening announcing a new rail terminal to be built on the site of the old Charleston Navy Base. The new intermodal rail yard will offer access to both Norfolk Southern and CSX, allowing both of the Southeast’s major rail carriers a state of the art facility to transfer freight from arriving ships at Charleston’s soon to be expanded port and distribute the goods throughout the Eastern United States and beyond.
Savannah is currently winning the race to get its port expanded before Charleston does, but that’s only for freight’s point of entry. The next battle may very well be over improving rail access from the ports to major distribution centers.
Follow up emails with my friend discussed the current logistics of moving freight from Savannah to Atlanta. Norfolk Southern’s freight traffic, for instance, has to navigate through a rail yard at Macon which generally adds two hours to the trip. That’s not significant for an overnight freight run, but would be unacceptable for passenger rail, even if not state of the art high speed rail.
In short, our rail infrastructure is adequate but could use some improvement for freight traffic. It is not ready to handle passenger rail. It’s debatable if it is ready to handle significant increased traffic from an expanded port.
Our neighbors in South Carolina, however, are investing in upgrades. They, at least at the Charleston port, are getting their new train set. We, always interested in the game of competitiveness, need to pay attention to make sure we aren’t left behind.
As such, a major review and possible upgrade of our rail infrastructure is warranted. Yet freight traffic is generally considered dull and unlikely to inspire the imagination of a large number of Georgians, despite the critical nature it represents in Georgia’s logistics backbone. Passenger rail, on the other hand, is something people can relate to. Leaving Atlanta and rushing by the I-75 bottleneck in Henry County to arrive in Savannah just over an hour later is not only relatable, but something average Georgians could add to their Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, and Summer wish lists.
Governor Deal said after July’s T-SPLOST defeat that rail was off the table for the foreseeable future, yet plans continue for a huge, multimodal facility adjacent to Five Points in downtown Atlanta. Mayor Reed will need some trains to make this project worthwhile.
Governor Deal is interested enough in the Port of Savannah expansion that he appointed his longtime friend and business partner Ken Cronan to the board that oversees the port. The Mayor and Governor, who worked closely together on T-SPLOST and Savannah Port funding before taking opposite sides in the Presidential race, have again pledged to work together on items that benefit the state.
A Republican Governor from North Georgia and a Democratic Mayor from the state’s largest city wouldn’t always have ties that bring them together. But the line that links the two may well one day have high speed trains running along it, if they can make their wish lists come true.