ATLANTA — Legislation moving through the General Assembly would let Georgia start drawing down up to $1.5 billion a year needed to move growing volumes of freight smoothly through the state.

The Georgia House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill Wednesday that would earmark the state’s 4% sales tax on diesel fuel used in locomotives to help fund freight rail improvements. The tax would raise an estimated $10 million per year, said House Transportation Committee Chairman Rick Jasperse, the measure’s chief sponsor.

That being nowhere near enough money, House Bill 588 also would authorize the state to go to the private sector to help finance freight rail projects through the same sorts of public-private partnerships the State Road and Tollway Authority has been using to build toll lanes on interstate highways across metro Atlanta.

“This is an opportunity to lead,” Jasperse, R-Jasper, said during a committee hearing on the bill late last month. “It helps us take the next steps to improve our freight and logistics infrastructure.”

The bill stems from two years of work by the Georgia Freight & Logistics Commission, a panel of lawmakers, local elected officials, business leaders and logistics industry executives created by the legislature.

The commission issued a report in December that suggested Georgia won’t be able to meet its goal of doubling the percentage of freight traveling by rail from 17% to 35% without public-private partnerships.

Brad Skinner, a board member at Denver-based freight railroad operator OmniTrax and a member of the commission, said public-private partnerships have paid off for his company and its government partners.

“I’ve seen what they do to help municipalities and states keep up with demand as their populations grow,” he said. “You’re looking at billions of dollars in investment that’s going to be required to maintain [Georgia] as a growth community and enhance quality of life.”

Seth Millican, executive director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, an affiliate of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said the huge increase in e-commerce brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has built support among legislative leaders for boosting investment in moving freight.

“Leadership is being responsive to things that have come out of the COVID pandemic,” he said. “Those trends toward more e-commerce were already there. But the COVID pandemic dramatically accelerated that.”

Millican said record growth at the Port of Savannah during the past year despite the pandemic has been another key contributor to momentum in the General Assembly behind improving freight rail capacity.

Increasing truck traffic into and out of the port has the Georgia Ports Authority building additional rail, notably the Mason Mega Rail Terminal, which will give the Port of Savannah enough additional capacity to ship goods to cities in the nation’s Mid-South and Midwest regions.

“In some respects, we’re a victim of our own success,” Millican said. “It’s putting pressure on the rest of the system to keep up.”

Jasperse’s bill isn’t the only freight rail measure before the General Assembly. The Senate Transportation Committee passed a similar measure sponsored by Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, on Wednesday.

Like Jasperse’s bill, Senate Bill 98 envisions the state entering into public-private partnerships to build freight rail projects. However, it doesn’t include the sales tax on diesel fuel.

“I would call this freight-and-logistics light,” Beach said during a hearing on the bill Feb. 23. “It doesn’t have a funding component.

A third piece of legislation, Beach’s Senate Resolution 102, would create the Georgia Commission on E-Commerce and Freight Infrastructure Funding as a follow-up to the Freight & Logistics Commission.

It essentially would add a third year to the ongoing discussion over how to pay for needed freight rail

improvements. The Senate Transportation Committee approved the resolution late last month.

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