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Norfolk Southern wrangles with detractors over expansion

(The following story by Eric Smith appeared on The Memphis Daily News website on February 3, 2009.)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Economic investment during a recession typically receives a wave of support, but Norfolk Southern Corp.’s tentative plan to develop a massive intermodal yard in Fayette County has been met with a groundswell of resistance.

Each opponent – from a citizens group to a nature conversancy to a public/private collaboration – has its own reason for objecting to the site of the proposed yard, which would occupy close to 500 acres in Fayette County between Rossville and Moscow on the north side of Tenn. 57.

Norfolk Southern has long expressed a need for growth in the area. The company runs 20-25 trains through Memphis daily, employs 50 local people and performs about 130,000 intermodal lifts at its 50-acre yard off Southern Avenue near the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

But the Norfolk, Va.-based company is hoping to bolster its “Crescent Corridor,” a 2,500-mile rail network linking the northeast and southeast U.S., and Memphis will play a key role in further development of that line.

“At its current location, there is no room to expand the rail yard,” said company spokeswoman Susan Terpay. “Norfolk Southern is expanding its presence in the Memphis market, which is a major transportation center for the United States, in order to handle more freight shipments by rail.”
Time for a compromise

The company’s plan to grow could come with a price. The prime spot for Norfolk Southern’s new Fayette County intermodal yard is near the Wolf River, adjacent to nature easements and preserves such as the William B. Clark Conservation Area.

The Wolf River Conservancy is one of the organizations worried about the effect a large intermodal yard would have on the ecosystems of the river and the Memphis Sands aquifer, the source of public drinking water.

Steve Fleegal, CEO of the Memphis-based conservancy, said the yard – with its vehicular traffic, light and noise pollution, fueling stations and other industrial uses – would jeopardize wetlands and floodplains and potentially contaminate surface and ground waters.

Fleegal also said he doesn’t want to see that section of Fayette County turn into another Lamar Avenue and Shelby Drive corridor, replete with warehouses and distribution centers and rutted roads from the trucks moving goods in and out of the area.

Although Fleegal does understand the need for Norfolk Southern to expand its local operation, he wants to see the railroad find a better spot for its yard, one that’s away from homes and the river.

“Memphis is a distribution, transportation center, and railroads are more important now to the country because of energy and we recognize that. We recognize that Norfolk Southern needs a multimodal yard. We have no problem with that,” Fleegal said. “What we do have an issue with is the location of the yard. That is because there are a number of other places which are far better suited to this type of facility in the metro area. In a nutshell, that’s our position.”
Toward middle ground

That’s also the position of the South Fayette Alliance, an organization of South Fayette County residents, business leaders and politicians who joined together to fight the railroad’s intermodal yard.

McCall Wilson, president of the Bank of Fayette County, is treasurer of the South Fayette Alliance. While he said he doesn’t speak on behalf of the organization, he speaks as a county resident and businessperson when he passionately defends the area’s citizens from what is perceived as a threat to their property values and rural way of life.

The problem, however, is railroads have eminent domain and can build on the land, originally slated for a golf course, without local or state support.

Wilson said the alliance has pleaded with the railroad to build its yard at Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park south of Downtown Memphis or at Chickasaw Trail, a proposed intermodal site along the Tennessee-Mississippi border in south Fayette County that has access to U.S. 72, the future Interstate 269 and the Chickasaw Trail Industrial Park in Marshall County, Miss.

Wilson said he laments the fact that railroads have the authority to build where they want, but he has been pleased with the response from company officials.

“It appears as though they are trying to work with us,” Wilson said. “We have put forth several sites for them to look at, with the No. 1 being Pidgeon Park. It’s my understanding they said, ‘Not going to happen.’ I think they have other sites in mind in Fayette County. I want to protect South Fayette County. If they have a site picked out that does not harm Highway 57, does not harm the town of Rossville, does not harm the town of Piperton, does not harm the Wolf River, then I can live with that.”
Legitimate concerns

Terpay, the Norfolk Southern spokeswoman, acknowledged that the company has heard the objections raised by the alliance.

“In Fayette County, we have met several times with local residents who have expressed concern about the operation of the facility, and we will continue to do so,” she said.

But she declined to discuss potential sites for the company’s intermodal yard. Those resisting the yard have likewise seen the railroad conceal its plans, causing concern that Norfolk Southern will simply start building along Tenn. 57 without notice.

“We know they have this power, but we’re asking them to use that power judiciously and wisely and in a manner that benefits the entire metro area, and to do that, we need to look at some alternatives,” Fleegal said.

A huge problem, though, is that other sites might not benefit the railroad’s efficiency goal. At Chickasaw Trail, for example, new track would need to be built. And at Pidgeon Park, Norfolk Southern trains would be diverted a long way from the company’s main rail line and would need to share track with Canadian National Railway Co. into the park.

Dexter Muller, senior vice president for community development at the Greater Memphis Chamber and head of its logistics sector, said a collection of entities from the chamber to the Port Commission to the city and county governments has been trying to lure the railroad to Pidgeon despite the obvious obstacles.

“We’ve tried to deal with it as best we could by encouraging them and giving them data about who owns the land there, what the cost would be, what kind of deal could we make for them, what other infrastructure might be required to make those things happen,” Muller said.

Pete Aviotti, special assistant to Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, said he couldn’t comment too much about the pitch to Norfolk Southern for Pidgeon because the city is in “preliminary stages of talking,” but that the city is actively working to make the park attractive to the railroad.

“There’s not anything definite,” Aviotti said. “The ball is in their court and they said they would call us.”

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

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