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Friday, April 09, 2010

NS to build $90-million center at Charlotte, N.C., airport

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A deal is imminent for a $90-million rail and trucking facility at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport that could bring the region $7 billion in business over the next two decades, the Charlotte Business Journal reports.


Norfolk Southern, the city of Charlotte and several federal agencies are close to announcing a land lease for airport property to hold an intermodal yard. When complete in late 2012, the center is expected to be the site of 250,000 container lifts a year, more than twice that of the current, smaller yard near uptown.

The deal has been 12 years in the making. "I never thought I would live that long," says Jerry Orr, aviation director for the city of Charlotte. "We are very close to wrapping it up."

The idea is simple: Trucks and trains need a large place with lots of equipment to move shipping containers from tractors to rail cars and visa versa. But the effort has been complicated by Norfolk Southern's effort to put the 200-acre intermodal yard between the airport runways. A half-dozen federal agencies, the city and the railroad must sign various agreements to make the project viable.

The eight or so agencies will announce in the coming weeks that the 280-employee rail-to-road center will indeed be built. If all goes as planned, the intermodal activity will hum along within view of pilots and passengers on the western runway within two years.

Norfolk Southern will finance the deal with a combination of about $25 million in federal and state grants and $65 million of its own capital.

The work was worth the wait, says everyone involved in the project. A study five years ago found the yard would mean $7 billion in economic impact over 20 years. The Norfolk Southern facility will ensure that Charlotte will become even more of a transportation crossroads, says Kenny McDonald, senior vice president of the Charlotte Regional Partnership. "The impact of the intermodal yard will be enormous. More companies will be bringing their stuff through Charlotte."

The idea of creating an intermodal center at the airport was first discussed around 1998. Orr thought the more than half-mile-wide swath of land between the central and western runways would be perfect for adding the second and third methods of transportation to the airport property.

"The airport property is a logistics center anyway," McDonald says. Where else could NS find 200 acres of leasable land with access to one of its main lines?

Says Orr: "With a major international airport here along with highway and rail, you have accessibility to all modes of transportation. It places us at the intersection of those rivers of commerce."

By 2012, or 2013 at the latest, the facility's effect will be an almost immediate reduction in truck traffic in the uptown area. The current, smaller intermodal center in the NoDa area requires hundreds of tractor-trailers to exit the interstates and travel through the north side of uptown. That traffic will move to the airport once the facility is complete.

The intermodal center will be built 40 feet below the level of the airport's newest runway, Orr says. That allows an unimpeded view from runway to terminal.

The airport had already taken 10 million cubic yards of dirt from the site to elevate the western runway above the nearby Interstate 485 interchanges, Orr says. In effect, putting the intermodal facility on airport land saved a few million dollars.

For NS, the Charlotte intermodal center is a part of an effort to remove up to 25 percent of the truck traffic from the southern part of the country, says Rob Martinez, railroad vice president of business development. That means up to 1.3 million containers that are now moving on the roads from southern Pennsylvania to New Orleans and beyond will soon move by rail. The Charlotte intermodal yard is an important part of that effort, Martinez says.

"We are incorporating Charlotte as a part of our Southern Crescent Corridor project," he says. That road-to-rail effort began last year, and the first phase should be complete by the end of 2012, Martinez says.

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