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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More details, concerns emerge on NS Memphis project

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Norfolk Southern has unveiled preliminary environmental data that will serve as the foundation of its proposed intermodal terminal in Fayette County, where cargo containers will be transferred between trucks and trains, The Daily News reports.

At a public information meeting, the company pledged that its massive facility would tread as lightly as possible, keeping noise, light and traffic to a minimum. But not all of the 50 or so people who attended the meeting were buying the railroad's overt commitment to reducing the terminal's impact on their land - or their community.

The meeting was filled with questions and concerns about the railroad's project, dubbed the Memphis Regional Intermodal Terminal. And it provided the first hint of opposition to the project since residents last year formed the South Fayette Alliance to protest Norfolk Southern's plan to build a yard in another part of the county.

The meeting took on a NIMBY feel, with residents from Fayette and Shelby counties and Marshall County, Miss., voicing fears that the yard would drastically disrupt their neighborhoods and their lives.

Norfolk Southern spokesperson Susan Terpay attended last week's meeting, held at the Piperton branch of the Bank of Fayette County - where the railroad in July announced it would build the $112-million facility on 570 acres owned by insurance mogul William Adair in a newly annexed section of Rossville. Terpay said the two-hour meeting was part of the entire process, giving residents a chance to speak with Norfolk Southern employees and consultants and allowing the public to see firsthand the facility's layout, its potential economic benefit and the timeline for design and construction.

"The public meeting and question-and-answer session are specifically designed to provide residents with an opportunity to express their opinions - positive and negative - concerning this project," she said. "All the comments were recorded and will be reviewed by Norfolk Southern and TDOT (Tennessee Department of Transportation) as part of the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) environmental evaluation process."

Residents heard Norfolk Southern's plan for the terminal, which will be developed between Knox and Parnell roads south of Tenn. 57 and north of U.S. 72. A rail spur will connect the railroad's main line with the yard to the south (going under an overpass that will be built on Tenn. 57), and a two-lane access road will connect the yard to U.S. 72 to the south.

Design work should be completed by February, and construction will begin next summer. The facility is slated to open in early 2012 with the promise of new jobs and economic development for Fayette County and the surrounding area.

The railroad posted information at the public meeting indicating how it intends to keep the terminal's profile as low as possible. For example, Norfolk Southern will cut into the terrain on the yard's east boundary, placing the facility 40 feet below ground level on that side. It will use the dirt it cuts away to fill in other parts of the footprint.

The terminal's light poles are only 70 feet tall, about a third shorter than the railroad's standard 100-foot height, NS officials said, so with the recessed yard they will only stand 30 feet above ground at some points. And the lights are designed to slant downward, reducing the "light pollution" that is common with industrial sites and transportation yards.

Also, the railroad plans to reduce the sounds of trains, cranes and trucks that will run into, out of and through the facility 24/7. And it is working to mitigate the impact the yard has on wildlife habitats and neighboring creeks and streams.

Despite Norfolk Southern's attempts to paint the facility as unobtrusive, attendees overwhelmingly expressed concern that their communities will turn into anther "Lamar Avenue and Shelby Drive," an industrial eyesore saddled with drab warehouses and rutted roads.

When a spokesperson for AMEC Earth & Environmental, the project's environmental consultant, said the Fayette yard would see up to 834 inbound and 834 outbound trucks daily, the crowd grew restless at the thought of how so much traffic - and the potential for vehicles continuously braking, shifting and honking - will disturb their rural lifestyle.

Joan Walters of Piperton, one of the most outspoken critics at the event, said the terminal would inevitably attract ancillary businesses such as distribution centers, fast-food joints and cheap motels, driving down property values and driving out residents.

But Ed Newton of Piperton had a different perspective. Though his property will be affected by the facility, he also saw that the railroad chose the lesser of two evils when opting to build on the Adair property instead of the Windyke property - the site north of Tenn. 57 originally slated for a golf course and the railroad's ideal site for an intermodal operation.

The railroad revealed that it considered six sites for its new Memphis-area facility, including the Adair property it ultimately chose. The other Fayette County sites included the Windyke site, plus two other properties near Norfolk Southern's main line: the Pictsweet and Vulcan properties that would have put truck traffic onto 57. The Memphis options were an expansion of the company's Forrest Yard facility near the Mid-South Fairgrounds and joining CN and CSX Corp. in Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park near Downtown. The railroad nixed those because Forrest Yard has no room to expand and Pidgeon would have required sharing track with competitors.

Norfolk Southern's decision came down to the Windyke and Adair properties, with the Adair site winning out because it impacted the fewest number of residents and posed fewer environmental risks.

"We are compromising somewhat, putting this here," said Charlie McMillan, an Atlanta-based systems engineer for Norfolk Southern facilities. "Community concerns moved us over here. We did listen to the community, and we were able to engineer solutions to make it work."

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