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VOL. 124 | NO. 140 | Monday, July 20, 2009

Norfolk Southern Caps Rail Yard Plans With Few Objections

By Eric Smith

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'ROUND THE BEND: Norfolk Southern Corp. will build a $129 million intermodal terminal on 570 acres in newly annexed land in Rossville. The above image shows a proposed site plan for the yard, which will include a rail spur from Norfolk Southern's main line north of Tenn. 57 and an access road to U.S. 72 in Mississippi. Below, Gov. Phil Bredesen, Norfolk Southern CEO Wick Moorman and landowner William Adair (from left) at last week's event to announce the site selection.

Wick Moorman admitted that if he had traveled to Fayette County earlier this year, he might as well have shown up wearing a Darth Vader costume. That’s because Moorman, the CEO of Norfolk Southern Corp., realized he and his company were viewed back then as evil overlords.

What a difference a few months can make.

Instead of running Moorman out of town on the rails Thursday, Fayette County residents cheered his announcement that Norfolk Southern would build a $129 million intermodal facility on 570 acres in a newly annexed section of Rossville.

The applause was directed partially at the economic benefits the yard will bring to the region and its role as anchor of a national rail network, but mostly because Norfolk Southern had abandoned the original site where it hoped to build the facility, which transfers cargo between trains and trucks.

The railroad initially planned to construct the yard – dubbed the Memphis Regional Intermodal Facility – on land north of Tenn. 57, between Rossville and Moscow and near the Wolf River. When the community vehemently opposed that site, even forming a nonprofit alliance to fight it, Norfolk Southern began looking elsewhere and eventually settled on land owned by former insurance mogul William Adair.

Moorman said the company chose that site because “Norfolk Southern wants to be a good neighbor.” So once Adair offered the new locale, protecting the residential corridor of the two-lane Tenn. 57 as well as the Wolf River, the railroad’s decision became a no-brainer.

“We don’t come into communities saying, ‘We’re the big, bad railroad, and it’s our way or no way at all,’ ” Moorman told The Daily News. “As we worked with the folks here, we started to understand what their concerns were. We said, ‘We need to be out here; the business tells us we need to be out here, but is there another way to go about this?’ And thanks to some good folks and Mr. Adair, we found that place and it was a win-win.”

Neighborly overtures

McCall Wilson, president of the Bank of Fayette County, hosted the Norfolk Southern event at the Piperton branch of his bank. Wilson had long supported the railroad opting for the Adair property, but he also feared the railroad would stick with its original plan of building on Tenn. 57 – something it had the power to do.

“They held off when they could have started,” Wilson said. “They had every right to start turning dirt, and they didn’t.”

A yard on that original property, known as the “Windyke” site because it is owned by the proprietors of Memphis’ Windyke Country Club and was slated for a golf course, could have put up to 2,000 trucks a day onto Tenn. 57. And its proximity to the Wolf River could have jeopardized area drinking water.

Steve Fleegal, executive director of the Wolf River Conservancy, was overjoyed with the railroad’s decision to reconsider its first choice and move southwest, much farther away from the river.

“We are very pleased with the new location,” Fleegal said. “We’re happy with Norfolk Southern considering community input and selecting a site after the first site turned out to be detrimental to the community’s interests – the character of the community along Highway 57 as well as the Wolf River corridor.”

Most Fayette County residents objected in theory to the rail yard in their backyard, instead preferring to see it built in Memphis’ Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park, although that site was ruled out months ago, as The Daily News first reported. But citizens ultimately acquiesced, deciding the Adair site was the lesser of two evils.

State Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville, said the decision to build in Fayette County should now prove to be a boon for the community, especially since the railroad chose “a superior alternative to the Windyke site.”

“Naturally, there’s a lot of people that wanted it to go to Memphis … including Memphis,” Rich said. “Certainly as the representative for the area, I can’t turn down jobs for Fayette County.”

‘Huge’ step forward


The decision is huge for Fayette County and Rossville, although the overall impact of the yard, from jobs to revenue, won’t be known for years. The facility, set to open in January 2012, will be able to accommodate more than 327,000 containers and trailers annually, and up to 2,177 parked containers and trailers on chasses.

It will serve as a key component of the railroad’s Crescent Corridor, a 2,500-mile, $2.5 billion public-private rail network linking the southeastern and northeastern U.S. and designed to take 1 million long-haul trucks off the road.

The terminal is projected to create a few hundred direct jobs, while thousands more could be generated from ancillary businesses – chiefly warehouses and distribution centers – that tend to sprout around intermodal yards.

Construction should begin on the Memphis Regional Intermodal Terminal once a few hurdles are cleared, including rezoning of the land to industrial plus the requisite site plans and building permits. Also, the railroad and the state will need to build an overpass on Tenn. 57 under which the rail spur into the intermodal yard can pass.

Despite those few remaining issues, Norfolk Southern officials are happy with the Adair property.

“This is a great site for us,” Moorman told The Daily News. “The Crescent Corridor is a concept that’s matured over the past six or seven years, but we’ve had a constrained footprint down in town (at Forrest Yard, near the Mid-South Fairgrounds) for a long time. Having this new facility, having this capability to grow, is huge for our company.”

Not all cheering and clapping

What’s especially significant is the site selection didn’t bring protests against the railroad, which has been dealing with those at proposed intermodal facilities in Jefferson County in East Tennessee and the Birmingham, Ala., area.

Some residents of those areas are up in arms over the respective facilities, which they feel will destroy their quality of life. Sites in both places have drawn rabid opposition, making the Fayette County announcement a relative slam-dunk.

Moorman said that communities tend to shudder at the thought of a railroad coming to town, so the company has to try and mitigate as many concerns as possible.

“I won’t tell you we make 100 percent of the people happy, but most everybody feels pretty good by the time we’re ready to go,” he said.

At least one voice has emerged as an opponent to the railroad here. Roy “Woody” Degan operates the Wolf River Airport on the north side of Tenn. 57 between Rossville and Piperton.

Degan, whose property fronts the railroad main line, understands that he can’t successfully stop the railroad from building, but he figures if he can delay it long enough through legal maneuverings, Norfolk Southern will have to forfeit its potential stimulus funding and the project could fizzle.

Though Degan said others are opposed, no dissenting voices have emerged. Still, he hopes to begin a grassroots campaign that will alert residents to potential dangers ranging from chemical spills to an increase in rail riders.

“I’ve read the act under which this railroad is getting their money,” Degan said. “For the people who are against this, what we have to do is band together and sue them because the railroad has a drop-dead date (for federal funding). If this were an open-ended fight between us and the railroad, we’d lose this every time – a hundred out of hundred. Except in this case.

“You don’t have to beat them – all you have to do is slow them down.”

For more coverage on this story, see the March 18, May 15, June 22 and July 16 editions of The Daily News at www.memphisdailynews.com.

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