ATLANTA – The state must pursue new sources of public and private funding to make the improvements needed to move an exploding volume of freight through Georgia efficiently, a state commission is recommending.

A report released last week by the Georgia Freight & Logistics Commission proposed that the General Assembly commit $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year to a dedicated fund for freight projects across the state.

In addition to that public money, the panel suggested legislation authorizing the State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) to tap into private financing to help build freight and logistics improvements such as rail projects and truck parking.

“There are some huge freight and logistics challenges ahead of us,” Brad Skinner, a board member at Denver-based freight railroad operator OmniTrax and a member of the commission, said during the panel’s final meeting last month. “[But] our traditional sources of revenue are drying up.”

The legislature created the commission two years ago to look for ways to improve the flow of freight through Georgia. The panel, which disbanded following the release of its final report, included lawmakers, local elected officials, business leaders and logistics executives.

The commission’s mission gained greater urgency last year as the coronavirus pandemic forced Americans accustomed to shopping at brick-and-mortar stores to go online for goods and services. For example, online spending last May was up 77% over May of 2019, according to the report.

The commission’s final report recommended an array of options for new sources of public funding for freight projects, including broadening the uses of motor fuel taxes – currently limited by state law to roads and bridges – to rail projects. The panel also suggested imposing mileage-based user fees, a consumer-based tax assessment on activities such as home deliveries from e-commerce providers, or a statewide assessment on warehouse distribution facilities.

The proposed SRTA legislation would expand the state agency’s authority from the toll lanes in metro Atlanta it currently oversees to let it enter into public-private partnerships to finance and build freight projects.

“SRTA, in conjunction with [the Georgia Department of Transportation], has demonstrated a strong proficiency in executing major infrastructure projects with private financing components, and their scope should be expanded to include freight and logistics projects as well,” according to the report.

The commission identified shortages of both truck parking and commercial truck drivers as major challenges hampering the smooth movement of freight. The DOT is conducting a study of the truck parking issue, looking to expand the supply of spaces beyond those found at truck stops and interstate rest areas.

The report noted that commercial truck driving schools were forced to close last year when the pandemic hit, hurting efforts to train new drivers at a time COVID-19 was increasing the demand for them. The commission recommended creating a workforce development grant program to help the commercial trucking industry work with public high schools in recruiting potential future drivers.

The 2021 General Assembly session kicks off next Monday.