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GEORGIA POWER COMPANY v. CITY DECATUR

decided: May 19, 1930.

GEORGIA POWER COMPANY
v.
CITY OF DECATUR



CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF GEORGIA.

Hughes, Holmes, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Stone

Author: Butler

[ 281 U.S. Page 506]

 MR. JUSTICE BUTLER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The city of Decatur brought this suit in the superior court of DeKalb county against the Georgia Railway and Electric Company and the Georgia Railway and Power Company. The former was the owner and the latter was the lessee and operator of a system of street

[ 281 U.S. Page 507]

     and suburban railway lines of more than 200 miles serving Atlanta, Decatur and other places in that part of Georgia. Before trial, they consolidated and became the Georgia Power Company, and it was made the defendant. The city prayed, and the court granted, a decree permanently enjoining petitioner from violating an ordinance passed by the city March 3, 1903, from violating a contract of April 1, 1903, based upon the ordinance, and from ceasing to operate about a mile of its line in Decatur. The decree was affirmed by the state supreme court. 168 Ga. 705.

Prior to the commencement of this suit it had been finally adjudged in litigation between the city and petitioner's predecessors that the ordinance and contract bound the carrier not to charge more than five cents per passenger between points on that stretch of track in Decatur and the terminus of the line in Atlanta and required it upon the payment of each full fare to give to the passenger a transfer ticket that would entitle him for one fare to ride between points on such track and points on any of the carrier's lines in Atlanta. It was also held that the state railroad commission was without authority to change rates that are established by contract. Georgia Ry. & Power Co. v. Railroad Comm., 149 Ga. 1. Georgia Ry. & Power Co. v. Town of Decatur, 152 Ga. 143. Georgia Ry. & Power Co. v. Decatur, 153 Ga. 329; 262 U.S. 432. The duration of the defendant's obligation to operate that line or to serve for such contract fare was not determined.

August 14, 1919, the commission fixed the carrier's fares other than those covered by the contract at six cents; September 22, 1920, it raised them to seven cents, and December 15, 1927, it made them ten cents per passenger but required the carrier to sell four tickets for thirty cents. The cost of the transportation covered by the contract fare, exclusive of any compensation for the use of property

[ 281 U.S. Page 508]

     employed to furnish the service, exceeds the revenue derived therefrom and is substantially higher per passenger than the cost of service covered by the fares fixed by the commission. An ordinance of the city of Decatur passed May 15, 1925, directed paving of the streets occupied by the line in question and the assessment of a substantial portion of the cost against the lessee. Thereupon lessor and lessee offered to surrender to the city the permit for the operation of the line and the lessee notified the city that at a time specified it would discontinue the service. The city refused to accept the surrender and promptly brought this suit.

Petitioner maintained below and here insists that the franchise and the rate contract expired August 16, 1919, and that its obligation to operate the line or keep the five cent fare in force was terminated by such offer and notice. See Denver v. Denver Union Water Co., 246 U.S. 178, 184. It contends that the rate is confiscatory, that the decree requires it to operate the line and to serve for the five cent fare and that, if compelled so to do, it will be deprived of its property without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This court has recently held that the usual permissive charter of a railroad company does not oblige the company to operate its railroad at a loss; that, where it is reasonably certain that future operation will be at a loss, the company, in the absence of contract obligation to continue, may cease, and if in such circumstances the company were compelled by the State to continue to operate at a loss, it would be deprived of its property without due process of law. Railroad Commission v. Eastern Texas R. R., 264 U.S. 79. The State may not by any of its agencies disregard the prohibitions of the Fourteenth ...


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