Logistics exec: Georgia’s freight capacity needs will require private investment

The Appalachian Regional Port near Chatsworth was built by the Georgia Ports Authority, Murray County and CSX Corp. as a public-private partnership.

ATLANTA – Georgia is going to need $135 billion to $150 billion during the next 30 years to keep up with the demand for freight capacity of a fast-growing state, a logistics industry executive said Wednesday.

That’s far too much money for the state government to cover, Brad Skinner, a board member at Denver-based freight railroad operator OmniTrax, told members of the Georgia Freight & Logistics Commission. Georgia is going to have to turn to the private sector for help, he said.

“There’s not enough money to do some of the things Georgia needs to do,” said Skinner, who also serves as a member of the commission. “You have to find private investors with deep pockets.”

Georgia has experience with public-private partnerships in the transportation sector. The interstate toll lanes that have begun to pop up across metro Atlanta during the last several years are being built and financed by private consortiums that are recovering their investments from toll revenues.

Another example is the Appalachian Regional Port near Chatsworth, an inland terminal built by the Georgia Ports Authority, Murray County and CSX Corp.

A subcommittee headed by Skinner recommended Wednesday that the commission submit legislation to the General Assembly expanding the role of the State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) – which oversees the toll lanes – to negotiating public-private partnerships for freight infrastructure projects across the state.

“There’s a lot of money out there that I believe can be captured,” Skinner said.

Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, one of the commission’s co-chairmen, said financing freight infrastructure improvements through public-private partnerships would give the state a new economic development tool.

“Expanding the role of SRTA could really be a game-changer, especially for rural Georgia,” he said.

While the state courts private investment in freight projects, some public funding will also be required.

Tanner said he and state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, the commission’s other co-chairman, plan to meet with officials from the Georgia Department of Revenue this month to talk about potential sources, including creating a dedicated trust fund for freight improvements.

But Stephanie Smith, senior vice president of supply chain and delivery for The Home Depot and a commission member, warned against imposing any taxes that might damage the state’s reputation for welcoming corporate investment.

“Georgia is a very business-friendly state,” she said. “We need to be careful not to do anything that makes Georgia less competitive.”

The commission, formed last year to look for ways to move freight more efficiently through Georgia, is expected to deliver its recommendations to the General Assembly before the 2021 legislative session begins next month.

Raffensperger backs election manager’s criticism of President Trump, Georgia senators

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger defended his top election manager Wednesday, one day after Gabriel Sterling criticized President Donald Trump for continuing to pursue claims of massive fraud in last month’s election.

“He spoke with passion and he spoke the truth,” Raffensperger told reporters during a news conference at the Georgia Capitol. “It’s about time more people out there were speaking the truth.”

Sterling, a Republican, took Trump and Georgia’s two GOP U.S. senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, to task on Tuesday for not doing more to calm a political atmosphere that has led to threats against elections workers.

Despite losing to President-elect Joe Biden in Georgia by more than 12,000 votes, a result that was formally certified last week, Trump has continued to post claims on Twitter of massive fraud. Perdue and Loeffler have called for Raffensperger’s resignation.

“This is exactly the kind of language that is at the base of a growing threat environment for elections workers who are simply doing their jobs,” Raffensperger said. “We will continue to do our jobs, follow the law and follow the process.”

Raffensperger, also a Republican, suggested it’s time to move forward to the Jan. 5 runoff elections for Georgia’s two Senate seats. He said his office has received 983,735 requests for absentee ballots thus far.

“I  believe Jan. 5 is where people should be expending their energy” he said. “We need to look ahead. Control of the United States Senate and a [state] Public Service Commission seat are at stake.”

Perdue and Loeffler are being opposed by Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively, in next month’s runoffs. The results will decide whether Republicans keep their majority in the Senate.

Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, a Republican member of the Public Service Commission, is also on the runoff ballot. He is being challenged by Democrat Daniel Blackman.

Also on Wednesday, Raffensperger announced he has launched an investigation into several groups he said have repeatedly and aggressively sought to register ineligible, out-of-state, or deceased voters ahead of the runoffs.

“I have issued clear warnings several times to groups and individuals working to undermine the integrity of elections in Georgia through false and fraudulent registrations,” he said. “We have received specific evidence that these groups have solicited voter registrations from ineligible individuals who have passed away or live out of state.

“I will investigate these claims thoroughly and take action against anyone attempting to undermine our elections.”

The targeted groups include America Votes, Vote Forward and The New Georgia Project. All three groups have denied the secretary of state’s allegations.

Kemp turns to Fulton County for Georgia Supreme Court pick

Shawn Ellen LaGrua

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp announced Tuesday he plans to appoint Fulton County Superior Court Judge Shawn Ellen LaGrua to the Georgia Supreme Court.

LaGrua will succeed former Justice Keith R. Blackwell, who left the bench last month to join his former law firm.

Before serving as a Superior Court judge in Fulton County, LaGrua was the inspector general for the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. She also served as DeKalb County’s solicitor general and worked as a prosecutor in the Atlanta, Stone Mountain, and Tallapoosa judicial circuits.

“Judge LaGrua has spent a 30-year career serving her fellow Georgians,” Kemp said. “I am confident that she will bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the bench.”

“We are delighted that Governor Kemp has chosen Shawn LaGrua to join our court,” Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton added. “She is an excellent choice among a number of excellent choices the governor had available to him.”

Blackwell stepped down from the state Supreme Court after eight years to become senior counsel for Atlanta-based Alston & Bird LLP’s Litigation and Trial Practice Group.

State moves to save pristine coastal tract from development

Ceylon tract (Photo credit: Open Space Institute)

ATLANTA – The Georgia Board of Natural Resources voted Tuesday to acquire 4,420 acres of undeveloped coastal habitat in southeastern Georgia from The Conservation Fund and the Open Space Institute.

The land is part of the 16,083 acre Ceylon tract, which the two preservation groups bought a year ago with the intent of transferring ownership to the state.

The largest undeveloped tract of coastal Georgia is located along the Satilla River in Camden County. The diverse landscape of salt marshes, tidal creeks and longleaf pine forests is home to threatened and endangered species including the gopher tortoise and indigo snake.

The Ceylon tract is close enough to the Interstate 95 corridor that it likely would be developed without the state and the conservation groups stepping in.

“This property is zoned to be able to take over 20,000 single-family homes, high density,” said Andrew Schock, Georgia state director for the Conservation Fund. “Three million square feet of commercial space and up to two deep-water marinas all were possible on this site.”

The purchases approved Tuesday involve two parcels, a 2,903-acre site owned by The Conservation Fund and 1,517 acres owned by the Open Space Institute.

While the state is paying $6.45 million for the two sites, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is getting contributions from several sources, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Chicago-based Bobolink Foundation and the new Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Fund.

The state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment two years ago to raise money for land conservation, restoration and parks projects through a tax on purchases of sporting goods. The Ceylon tract qualified for the program’s first round of funding awarded earlier this year.

The two sites approved for acquisition Tuesday are for the first phase of the project, Steve Friedman, the DNR’s chief of real estate, told board members. He said he would come to the board with the second phase of the proposed purchases late next year.

The Ceylon tract borders Cabin Bluff, another undeveloped site the state is in the process of acquiring. The DNR board voted in October to purchase nearly 8,000 acres there from the same two conservation groups.

“Cabin Bluff and … Ceylon are significant natural areas in Georgia,” said Kim Elliman, president and CEO of the Open Space Institute. “An incredible array of native species will continue to call the property and its waters home.”

Both the Ceylon and Cabin Bluff sites are slated to become Georgia DNR wildlife management areas.

Port of Savannah sets monthly record for containerized cargo

Port of Savannah

ATLANTA – The Port of Savannah set a record for containerized cargo volume in October, the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) reported Monday.

The nation’s busiest export hub handled an all-time high 494,095 twenty-foot equivalent container units (TEUs) in October, an increase of 8.3% over October of last year. The October total broke the previous monthly record of 441,600 TEUs set in August.

The tremendous growth Savannah is experiencing is the main reason the authority is expanding the port’s capacity, said Will McKnight, chairman of the GPA’s Board of Directors.

“Our long-term infrastructure investments ensure cargo fluidity as Savannah’s container trade increases,” McKnight said. “By improving our berthing for today’s larger vessels, expanding container storage and doubling our rail lift capacity, we’re making sure the GPA is ready when our customers are ready to grow.”

A prime example of the infrastructure improvements underway at the Port of Savannah is the Mason Mega Rail Terminal, which is now more than 75% finished. In the latest milestone for the project, rail cars began traveling along newly installed track linking the Garden City Terminal’s Chatham and Mason rail yards.

When completed, the Mason Mega Rail Terminal will give the port enough additional capacity to ship goods to cities in the nation’s Mid-South and Midwest regions.

While there’s no guarantee the container trade at the Port of Savannah will continue to increase so quickly, GPA Executive Director Griff Lynch noted the recent growth came during a global pandemic.

“To have achieved all-time record volumes in two of the last three months is a tribute to the hard work and collaboration between GPA and our partners throughout the supply chain,” Lynch said.

Meanwhile, the ports authority also broke a record in October for handling vehicles and machinery units at the Port of Brunswick.

The port moved 78,772 roll-on/roll-off units during the month, an increase of 24% over October 2019. The previous monthly record was set back in April 2015.