SAVANNAH — Banking on demand from local carpet manufacturers as well as automakers in neighboring states, the Georgia Ports Authority is building a $24 million inland terminal that will move cargo by railroad between industries north of Atlanta and the Port of Savannah about 300 miles away.
Construction on the Appalachian Regional Port is scheduled to begin before the end of the year on 42 acres formerly used to raise cattle in Murray County. The site sits about 90 miles north of Atlanta and 40 miles southeast of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The new terminal will save port customers time and money by eliminating the need to haul cargo by truck through Atlanta in order to reach Savannah, home to the nation's fourth-busiest container port, said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. Officials estimate the rail port will eliminate 40,000 truck trips through Atlanta each year.
"It's satisfying a long-term need to transfer more road activity to rail," Foltz said. "That's a good thing for the state of Georgia. And it's going to be a magnet for the Murray County area from an economic standpoint."
There's already a healthy industrial base within a short driving distance of the planned rail terminal — from carpet and flooring manufacturers in Dalton to nearby poultry producers and chemical plants. Volkswagen makes cars just across the Georgia-Tennessee line in Chattanooga, and Foltz said he expects automakers in Alabama to make use of the rail port as well.
While Georgia ports officials will build and operate the rail terminal, Murray County taxpayers and railroad company CSX Transportation are sharing part of the cost. Under an agreement signed Tuesday by Gov. Nathan Deal, CSX will spend more than $5 million laying new track and connecting the terminal to its network.
Murray County officials put up $700,000 to buy farmland for the terminal site a few miles from Interstate 75. The project will cost Georgia taxpayers about $10 million, with the Georgia Ports Authority investing an additional $7.5 million.
The state has one other inland rail terminal located in Cordele in southwest Georgia, that's run by a private company. It moves cotton, lumber and other agricultural goods to Savannah for export overseas.
State and local officials said it's too early to know how many direct jobs will be created by the project in Murray County, where the new rail terminal is scheduled to open in 2018. Local officials hope the investment will cause new businesses such as parts suppliers and retail distribution centers to open nearby.
Located at the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains, Murray County is better known for nature tourism than industry. One-third of its land area is federally protected forestland. The county has just two incorporated cities — Chatsworth and Eton.
Brittany Pittman, who serves as Murray County's lone elected commissioner, said some of her constituents are worried the rail terminal will increase traffic in the quiet county and disrupt the natural landscape. But she said many see the project as "truly a huge economic boost."
"It's not something we're going to see results from overnight," Pittman said. "But certainly as time goes on we're going to recognize the benefits."