Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tennessee seeking funding for rail upgrades

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Tennessee is seeking $81.2 million as part of a coalition of states applying for $300 million in federal stimulus funds to make railroad upgrades linked to development of intermodal rail terminals, where trailers and containers are transferred between trucks and trains, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports. Although the coalition's application for stimulus money is based on reducing truck traffic along Interstate 81, whose southern terminus is in Jefferson County, Tennessee would spend its entire share on an intermodal facility being built near Memphis, some 400 miles from I-81.

Norfolk Southern's primary interest in Tennessee is long-haul traffic from Harrisburg, Pa., to Memphis and farther south to Birmingham, Ala., said Julie Oaks, Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman. Also, work on the Memphis-area terminal is moving forward, whereas the railroad company has yet to make a firm decision on an East Tennessee intermodal site.

"They are substantially further along in Memphis than in East Tennessee," Oaks said. "They have already determined a site in Fayette County and have started environmental and design work.

Norfolk Southern announced in July that it would build a $129 million intermodal facility in the Memphis area as part of the railroad's Crescent Corridor, the name for the New York-to-New Orleans route. The facility will be built on 570 acres and is to open by 2012.

NS has been looking at a 400-acre site along Highway 11E in New Market as a possible location for a $60-million intermodal facility, but even though it has outlined the plans at public meetings, Jefferson County Mayor Alan Palmieri said the county has received no firm commitment that the railroad will build the facility.

"I spoke with them Friday," Palmieri said. "They said, 'We can't tell you we are going to locate in New Market, there are still a lot of things we will have to consider.' "

He said the railroad would not elaborate on those issues, but he does not believe the public opposition that has risen against the proposal is a significant factor. He noted that the railroad has eminent domain powers and could take the land if it really wanted it, although Norfolk Southern officials have said they do not want to use that option.

Palmieri said he was not aware of the multi-state effort to secure the intermodal funds.

Led by Pennsylvania, which made the application, Virginia, Tennessee, New York, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are seeking funds through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery Act to reduce traffic congestion on the 855 miles of I-81 running through those states by developing intermodal facilities to move truck traffic off the highway and onto rail. Palmieri said he was not surprised that Tennessee's Department of Transportation would target the Memphis terminal because more progress had been made there. Even if Norfolk Southern picked a site in New Market today, it would be at least three years before a terminal could be built, he said.

Also, TDOT is looking at the state as a whole and not just East Tennessee in terms of reducing traffic on I-81, and the Memphis facility would have a greater impact than the one proposed in New Market, Oaks said.

"The facility being discussed in East Tennessee would be a smaller, second-tier center whose value is that it has access to both I-40 and I-75," she said. "There will be some cargo that would stop at Knoxville, but a larger proportion would be making a longer trip."

If the Jefferson County facility became a reality, it might be possible to seek federal funds to help with the project, but things are in limbo until Norfolk Southern reaches a decision, Palmieri said.

"If they could finally say yes or no, that would allow us to move on in either direction," he said.

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