Rail Yard Site All But Nailed

By Eric Smith

Memphis Regional Intermodal Terminal site announcement
Thursday, 2 p.m.
Bank of Fayette County
1265 Tenn. 57, Piperton

The land where Norfolk Southern Corp. wants to build an intermodal yard was annexed Monday night by the town of Rossville, paving the way for the railroad’s proposed multimillion-dollar, multi-acre facility.

Only one hurdle remains – getting the land rezoned industrial – before the Norfolk, Va.-based company receives the official green light to begin one of the largest economic investments in Fayette County’s history.

Although that final step won’t be resolved until next week, Norfolk Southern CEO Wick Moorman today will confirm that the company has selected a site in South Fayette County for the new yard, dubbed the Memphis Regional Intermodal Terminal.

At 2 p.m. at the Bank of Fayette County in Piperton, Moorman and other railroad representatives will be joined by a host of state officials, including Gov. Phil Bredesen, to announce the terminal will be built on about 500 acres in the newly annexed land in southwestern Rossville.

Done deal

The city this week annexed nearly 1,600 acres in Rossville’s urban growth zone, stretching from just south of Tenn. 57 down to the state line. Much of the land is owned by former Direct General Insurance Co. owner William Adair, who sold that company and subsequently paid $28 million for 3,200 acres in Fayette County and Marshall County, Miss.

Adair bought the land with plans to develop it into a mixed-use subdivision called Piperton Hills. That project is still on the table, but Adair decided to sell a portion of his acreage to the railroad for the intermodal terminal in response to Norfolk Southern’s original site location, which county residents opposed.

The initial site was north of Tenn. 57 between Rossville and Moscow near the Wolf River. Locals reacted negatively to that site because of increased truck traffic along 57 and potential damage to the Wolf River. Opponents even formed a nonprofit group called the South Fayette Alliance.

Meanwhile, Norfolk Southern began looking at alternative sites.

State Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville, said Norfolk Southern easily could have started building at that location (dubbed the Windyke site) because of the eminent domain that railroads possess.

“Instead, Norfolk Southern, when contacted by the South Fayette Alliance and the people in Fayette County, did what they could to be a good neighbor, come into our good graces and look for other property,” Rich said. “They knew (Windyke) was going to put an extraordinary amount of distress on Rossville and that the state would have to four-lane 57 highway. They listened to the concerns and they went out looking for another property.”

Art of compromise

Norfolk Southern will now allow its option on the Windyke property to expire and will move forward with the land owned by Adair, who declined to disclose the terms of the deal.

Also, railroad officials declined comment prior to the event, but the intermodal yard is a key component of Norfolk Southern’s Crescent Corridor, a 2,500-mile rail network linking the southeastern and northeastern U.S.

The Memphis yard, using a combination of trucks and trains to move goods into and out of the area, will serve as a critical western gateway for the corridor, whose $2.5 billion price tag is being funded by the railroad and the government.

The overall economic impact of the yard on Fayette County and the surrounding area, including Memphis, won’t be known for some time. First, the completion of the facility will take years. Second, the true benefit of the yard might come from ancillary businesses such as warehouses and distribution centers that tend to sprout near intermodal yards, and the development of those could be slow because of the sagging economy.

But Martin Lipinski, director of the Intermodal Freight Transportation Institute and an engineering professor at the University of Memphis, said Norfolk Southern choosing Fayette County for its intermodal site ultimately will provide numerous benefits for the area’s robust logistics industry.

“I think the fact that they are bullish on Memphis is very good for our community that they’re making this large-scale investment,” he said.

Collateral benefits

Matt Kisber, Tennessee Commissioner of Economic and Community Development, said that although the terminal will be one county over, its impact on Memphis will be positive.

“In my opinion, that facility in the greater Memphis area further enhances Memphis’ moniker as America’s distribution center,” Kisber said. “It does combine truck and rail in an intermodal facility that will help move goods in and out of the region and across the country – literally around the world. It will be another attractive asset for Memphis and Tennessee’s distribution activities.”

Rossville Mayor James Gaither said the development of the yard will provide some property tax base for the city and county, but beyond that he wasn’t sure of the direct impact for the economy or for jobs.

All he knows is the annexation issue cleared the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. Also, the first reading of the land’s rezoning is complete with the second scheduled for Monday. Once that is finished, the next step is for the railroad to submit a site plan before the lengthy construction process can begin.

“I think that will wind it up with the railroad as far as I know,” Gaither said.

He also knows that the Adair site is a much better choice than Windyke, which might have resulted in a groundswell of protests like the railroad is seeing with intermodal site selections in Alabama and East Tennessee.

“From where they’re putting it now to where they were going to put it,” Gaither said, “the people think that’s a better place.”