This is the first movement at the site since the project's inception, but not a sign that the project has been given a green light. The project is still facing a court challenge from the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors. Supervisors say the proposed $35-million freight yard with cranes, multiple train tracks and acres of pavement for stacking shipping containers and truck trailers is wildly inconsistent with their vision for nonpolluting, high-tech industry on eastern county lands and will spoil the quality of life of nearby residents.
The county's legal attack is designed to block the release of state money earmarked to pay 70 percent of project costs.
But in spite of the challenge, the railroad is tackling some preliminary groundwork. Acting with conceptual and financial backing from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, the railroad bought land from two couples and a business. It now owns pieces of the 65-acre project site. Railroad spokesman Robin Chapman said the railroad decided to demolish the buildings on the land "for safety and liability reasons."
Four years ago, state officials announced plans for an intermodal rail yard capable of shifting freight between trucks and trains to be built somewhere in the Roanoke region. The yard is a component of a plan under which NS could haul more freight faster between the Port of Hampton Roads and Midwest markets along its multi-state Heartland Corridor.
In April 2008, after a review of 10 possible sites, the state said the facility would be built at Elliston. The site was chosen for its location on the Heartland Corridor and proximity to Interstate 81 and other operational advantages, officials said.
Government officials in the Roanoke and New River valleys supported the Heartland Corridor initiative, saying they expected it would remove trucks from I-81 and create jobs and tax revenue in Southwest Virginia.
Montgomery County later withdrew its support and opposed the choice of Elliston, an unincorporated community near the Roanoke County line. In court, the county contends that the proposal for partial state funding of the terminal calls for an unconstitutional giveaway of public funds to a private entity and must be blocked. Without state funding, the railroad has said, the intermodal yard won't happen.
In November, a Circuit Court judge rejected the county's challenge. The judge ruled that the state can help pay for the intermodal yard because the project will have public benefits in the form of reduced truck traffic on Virginia roads. The judge specifically mentioned I-81.
After the ruling, county supervisors unanimously agreed to appeal the county's loss to the Virginia Supreme Court at an expected cost of $50,000. That's on top of $175,293 spent on lawyers already on this issue. The appeal, which will restate the original argument, is due at the high court in Richmond in March, said Kathleen Wright, an outside attorney the county uses.
The state Supreme Court takes up only slightly more than 20 percent of the civil appeals filed. Appellate lawyer Steve Emmert predicted the county would find out in late summer if the court will hear the case.
The only people living at the site are Frank and Joyce Howard and their son Allen and his family. They occupy the Howard family farm, where Frank Howard has spent all his 74 years. They have discussed their property with the railroad, but have not signed a sales contract or settled on a price.
Joyce Howard, 68, said the family members are tired of the legal fight. They accept they will have no choice but to sell their land and relocate. She said county officials are acting out of anger at railroad officials for vowing early in the process to build the facility in spite of county objections. The county's appeal should be halted, won't succeed and will drag things out further, she said.
"I know they can't stop it and all they're doing is wasting money," Howard said.
Annette Perkins, chairwoman of the county supervisors, said county leaders are appealing on behalf of countywide interests -- not just the Howards'.
"Most of the people that I have heard from ... support the appeal," Perkins said. "We do not believe that the state has the right under the constitution to give this money to benefit a private entity."
Perkins said she doubts the project will create jobs in Montgomery County and believes it will increase truck traffic on I-81. She is quoted in a recent county news release as calling the intermodal yard a "bad" project.