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VOL. 124 | NO. 95 | Friday, May 15, 2009

Norfolk Southern, Fayette Move Closer to Intermodal Marriage

By Eric Smith

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ON TRACK: Progress is being made on Norfolk Southern Corp.’s plans to build a massive intermodal facility in Fayette County. While a final decision on where the railroad will develop the facility has not been made, all signs point to the land owned by William Adair between Rossville and Piperton, just north of the state line. -- PHOTO BY BOB BAYNE

The South Fayette Alliance on Wednesday night began the process of endorsing a site where the group wants Norfolk Southern Corp. to build its proposed intermodal facility, although it didn’t reach a formal position.

The nonprofit organization is mulling a proposal that will ask the Norfolk, Va.-based company to build its multimillion-dollar, multi-acre intermodal yard on private land owned by William Adair between Rossville and Piperton, just north of the state line.

Though the railroad’s desire to develop a roughly 500-acre yard in the county has been long known, and though Fayette County leaders’ preference for this site was revealed in a March report by The Memphis News – The Daily News’ sister publication – the alliance has yet to take an official stance on the matter.

Buck Clark, president of the South Fayette Alliance, the group that formed last year in response to Norfolk Southern’s announced intermodal plans, said the alliance’s executive committee met Wednesday night and discussed “quite thoroughly” the idea of endorsing Adair’s property to the railroad.

“We are in the process of preparing a specific position,” he said. “The process we put into motion (Wednesday) night should be completed within a week or so.”

Clark wouldn’t speculate on the alliance’s position, but he said for an endorsement to happen it will require a consensus of the group’s executives and directors.

“I think it’s important for the alliance to adopt a position,” Clark said. “It is a very important matter and we want to give it the most careful possible consideration and to be as specific and accurate as we can be in whatever we say about it.”

Quiet conversations

If the alliance decides to back the Adair property, and if that position is agreed to by Norfolk Southern – and sources say both are done deals – the railroad will carve 465 acres out of Adair’s 3,000-acre property in southwestern Fayette County that he bought in 2007 for $28 million.

When reached earlier this week, Adair said the decision of where to build was solely up to the railroad, which has remained reticent on a site selection.

“The ball’s in their court,” Adair said. “It’s out of my hands. It’s all up to them.”

Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpay said the railroad has not selected a site. She acknowledged that as the company considers locales, it continues meeting with the South Fayette Alliance to hear county residents’ concerns.

“We’ve talked with them over the last few months, the South Fayette Alliance, and kept them up to date on how it will proceed,” Terpay said. “We’ve always said we’re interested in talking with them and keeping them up to date.”

Staying up to date on this issue is difficult because of the railroad’s silence with regard to site preference. But Norfolk Southern’s plans for Fayette County have stirred all kinds of buzz since the railroad made clear its plans to expand there.

Norfolk Southern wants to develop a major intermodal facility in the area to bolster its “Crescent Corridor,” a 2,500-mile rail network linking the southeastern and northeastern parts of the country.

The corridor, a $2.5-billion public-private partnership, is set up to relieve truck congestion on major highway routes such as Interstates 40 and 81, potentially taking a million long-haul trucks off the road once it’s complete.

The city of Memphis tried to lure the company to build its facility at Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park near Downtown, but the railroad ruled out that site earlier this year, as The Daily News first reported.

Twists and bridges

Norfolk Southern initially considered a Fayette County site between Rossville and Moscow, north of Tenn. 57, on property slated for a golf course and country club development by the owners of Windyke Country Club.

The “Windyke” site, as it came to be known, was vehemently opposed by nearly every stakeholder – from environmental groups, because of the yard’s proximity to the Wolf River, to residents of Fayette County and eastern Shelby County, because of the yard’s reliance on Tenn. 57 for trucks to access highways and byways.

Mike Russell, Collierville alderman and citizen, a Piperton landowner and a board member of the South Fayette Alliance, said the Adair property has been a more popular choice because traffic from the yard would spill onto U.S. 72, protecting 57 and the Wolf River.

“In general, from what I hear in Piperton and even parts of Collierville, public opinion continues to support that site,” Russell said. “I think it’s down now to what I’ll call logistics.”

The logistics involve the sale of Adair’s land to Norfolk Southern and access to the property from the railroad’s main line, which runs parallel to 57. A spur from that line would need to be built south into the yard, crossing the highway and two other properties.

State Rep. Barrett Rich, whose district includes the area in question, said he is working with the governor and the state transportation commissioner about getting the 57 overpass built. In light of the current economic crunch, he noted, an ideal situation would be to find federal stimulus money to build it.

But if government money doesn’t come through, that means Norfolk Southern could be stuck with the bill, perhaps prompting the company to reconsider the original Windyke site.

Another twist in the development is if Norfolk Southern did revert to Windyke, Tenn. 57 would need to be expanded to four lanes, something the county and state would likely have to fund – and something nobody wants.

Rich said that means the overpass funding needs to be resolved. Meanwhile, some fear that if those property owners don’t agree to terms to sell their land for the spur to reach the yard, the entire deal could fall apart, forcing the railroad to reconsider Windyke.

“We’re probably going to end up having to spend a little bit now to save a lot later,” Rich said.

Other issues to consider

More details about the yard development were revealed this week when Dan Wilkinson of Colliers Wilkinson Snowden confirmed he is representing the railroad in this matter.

“Not in everything they do, but in a lot of what they do,” Wilkinson said, adding that he couldn’t comment and that he was under a “seven-page confidentiality agreement.”

“There is no way I can say anything about this particular deal,” Wilkinson said. “If I do, I get into all kinds of trouble.”

Other issues at hand are zoning and annexation for the Adair property. Though the land is in Rossville’s urban growth zone, it is zoned residential and will need to be rezoned light industrial, said Rossville Mayor James Gaither. He said Rossville will need to annex the property as well before a deal can be struck.

“It won’t be too bad,” Gaither said. “We’ll probably zone it and annex it at the same time if it comes to that. We don’t know for sure whether they’re going out there or not. We hope they do, but we don’t know for sure.”

Ron Gant, county commissioner for Rossville, said a host of other issues remain up in the air, such as the yard’s profile. A major concern for the county is the facility’s noise and light pollution.

“Once the zoning is done, then we move forward with the overall project being approved by the city of Rossville, putting as much screening and that kind of stuff as far as making it more neighbor-friendly,” Gant said. “That’s going to be the next big phase, making it fit in as best as possible to help the surrounding neighbors.”

Though Adair said nothing is finalized, sources told The Daily News that an agreement between him and the railroad has been signed, with the overpass and those properties between the main rail line and Adair’s property being the final pieces of the puzzle.

More on this story can be found by reading this article from the March 18 editions of The Daily News and The Memphis News.

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