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Development of $112M Intermodal Railroad Yard in Tenn. Stirs Opposition

Tue March 30, 2010 - Southeast Edition
Eric Smith -Memphis Daily News

ROSSVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The development of Norfolk Southern Corp.’s $112 million intermodal yard on a former cattle ranch in Fayette County has polarized the community for more than a year.

Proponents are excited about the project’s economic opportunities, while opponents fear it will ruin their rural community forever.

But both sides of the divide have one thing in common: Their objectives rely on time and money, both of which are at a premium.

The Norfolk, Va.-based railroad is striving to manage a complex schedule that calls for the 570-acre Memphis Regional Intermodal Terminal to open in early 2012 on the Twin Hills Ranch recently annexed by Rossville.

That means fulfilling the requisite environmental permits, preparing the site for construction and completing the immense infrastructure where cargo containers will be transferred between trains and trucks.

But the railroad also has funding concerns. Although Norfolk Southern received $105 million in federal stimulus money, half of that money is pegged for an intermodal facility in Alabama.

That leaves $52.5 million for the Rossville facility. And because Norfolk Southern has committed only $31 million of its own money for the facility, a $28.5 million shortfall remains. Railroad officials claim they will make up the difference, but they haven’t revealed how they will raise the money, which in turn prompts questions about the company’s ability to do so during a poor economy.

“Norfolk Southern is currently working with our five state partners [Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Virginia] to identify other funding options,” Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpay wrote in an e-mail.

When asked about potential sources — public or private — targeted amounts and the possibility of the company paying the balance, she replied, “We are still discussing options, so I can’t provide details yet.”

Those who want to halt the yard’s construction are in a race against the clock, their hopes growing dimmer with each day that passes and each chunk of dirt leveled to clear for an access road to the site.

As with any small grassroots group struggling to get their message out and fighting a multibillion-dollar company such as a railroad, they toil with decisions such as hiring a community activist and waging a letter-writing campaign.

But the battle is daunting. And seven months after Norfolk Southern made its site announcement, it’s clear the billion-dollar railroad has an advantage over its detractors.

Richard “Dickie” Watson, who keeps his horses at a stable near the site, admitted that residents’ efforts might be a case of too little, too late. But he said they have too much to lose and won’t go without a fight.

“We don’t know if it can be stopped or slowed down, and we feel like everybody who’s anybody in the county has already found a way to make some financial gain on it,” he said. “It’s going to change, and it’s not going to change for the best.”

Change in Fayette County has been in the air for years as word of the railroad’s plans leaked out, but nothing became official until July, when Norfolk Southern ended speculation announcing it would build on 3,200 acres that stretch from the Mississippi state line north toward Tenn. 57.

Norfolk Southern aims to build one of the largest intermodal terminals in the nation, handling more than 327,000 containers and trailers annually, and up to 2,177 parked containers and trailers on chassis. A rail spur will join the yard with Norfolk Southern’s main line north of Tenn. 57, while a road will connect the yard to U.S. 72 south of the state line.

Norfolk Southern officials said they chose this site over five others, including an expansion of the company’s existing yard near the Mid-South Fairgrounds. The railroad was desperate to grow in the Memphis area, projecting an increase in intermodal traffic even though numbers declined in 2009.

The terminal is slated to be a critical link in Norfolk Southern’s “Crescent Corridor,” a 2,500-mi. (4,023 km) rail network connecting gateways like Memphis and New Orleans in the Southeast to Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the Northeast.

With an estimated price tag of $2.5 billion, the private-public project has won the support of politicians and business leaders alike who have backed the railroad’s “green” benefits, such as taking long-haul trucks off the road.

But as large swaths of rolling, tree-lined hills are decimated to make room for the facility, and as railroad officials estimate 1,600 trucks a day driving in and out of the Rossville facility, residents say they can’t fathom any environmental benefits locally.

Residents have raised concerns about contaminants flowing into the Wolf River, a source of drinking water for Memphis, and claimed that the railroad has created a conflict of interest by hiring the consulting firm that’s doing an environmental assessment of the project.

That assessment hasn’t yet found significant impact, meaning the railroad likely will be allowed to move ahead in the summer.

The railroad is promising to keep the yard as unobtrusive as possible. It said the facility will be built 40 ft. (12 m) below ground level because it will sit behind berms on its east side. It has plans to reduce the “light pollution” that is common with industrial sites and transportation yards and to mitigate the sounds of the trains, cranes and trucks operating on the site 24/7.

Residents envision a cacophonous eyesore whose activity will continuously be heard, felt and seen by anyone within a mile or so of the facility.

“They’re going to light that yard up and we’re going to lose our stars and there’s going to be trains bumping into each other all day and all night long,” Watson said. “It doesn’t belong in a residential, rural community. It belongs in some sort of industrial park.”

Perhaps nobody embodies the debate more than Debby Turnmire of Piperton.

As a customer service representative for Eagle Systems, a national drayage company that moves cargo containers between intermodal facilities and distribution centers, Turnmire understands how a new intermodal facility could be a boon for business. But, she quickly noted, the yard is close to the stable where she keeps her Tennessee Walker, Jim.

“The neighbors and people who have barns and horses out there, obviously they’re not going to be particularly happy about [the rail yard] because it’s almost in their backyard,” she said. “For me, it’s good for business, so it’s like I’m straddling the fence.”

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