Expanding Horizon

City, county push for Presidents Island rail project

By Amos Maki

The city and county mayors are aggressively pushing for support for a major expansion of Presidents Island, including a concerted effort to bring city and county legislators on board.

Cargill and other entities on Presidents Island would benefit from a $69.5 million expansion project that could more than double the developed space in the industrial area, including a rail expansion.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“It represents an opportunity, not just in the immediate years to come, but for decades to come,” Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. told members of the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission during a Wednesday, Aug. 13, briefing at City Hall.

The most aggressive plan under consideration, a $69.5 million expansion project, could more than double the developed space in the industrial area.

The Port Commission has applied for a $35.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Other parties, including Cargill and Canadian National Railway Co., could contribute $34.2 million toward the rail expansion, leading to an additional 1,500 acres of developable land on Presidents Island, which currently has 1,000 developed acres.

If the project does not win approval for all or some of the grant, two smaller expansion efforts are under consideration.

One option is a $38 million rail expansion to serve Cargill, a project that would not produce any new developed land. The other is a $45 million expansion that would produce 500 new acres of developable land.

The $69.5 million expansion project would include roughly 80,000 linear feet of railroad tracks starting at roughly the entrance to Presidents Island and encircling 1,500 acres of undeveloped land.

Completed in 1957, the 7,500-acre Presidents Island area is home to the Port of Memphis and has a $7.1 billion annual economic impact. It is home to 173 businesses and 4,000 jobs. Major employers include Valero and Cargill, among others.

After decades of sometimes painstaking growth, Presidents Island – which features an 8-mile-long harbor with the 1,000-acre, water-fronted industrial park – has only 200 acres of developable land available, and rail service has reached capacity.

“This gives us the ability to build it now and get ahead of the pack,” Wharton said.

The project would relieve rail congestion – which can affect rail switching yards as far way as St. Louis and Cairo, Ill. – and provide more storage room. Cargill spent $500,000 in 2010 moving rail cars around to avoid congestion.

The 1,500 acres targeted for expansion presents a unique opportunity to offer large chunks of property to industrial users, said Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell. The city and county own 85 percent of the property being eyed for the expansion.

“As vast as our county is, finding suitable property to expand our industrial footprint has become increasingly difficult,” Luttrell said.

The expansion would involve a massive construction effort to either build up the vacant land or form a levee. City and county officials say the project would create more than 800 constructions jobs and 4,000 jobs once the site is completely built out.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, said the federal grant process was highly competitive but that feedback from Washington has been positive.

“This is going to be more like the (University of Memphis) Tigers football team going to a bowl game than the Tigers basketball team going to the (NCAA) tournament,” Cohen said.