Work begins on new NS yard in Virginia

Written by jrood

Norfolk Southern is clearing land for a planned intermodal train terminal even as attorneys for Montgomery County try to block the project's state funding, the Roanoke Times reports. A demolition contractor leveled a house Jan. 18 and a barn Jan. 19. One more house, vacant like the first to go down, is scheduled to be razed, as well. A silo visible from U.S. 460/11 will come down later this month, according to heavy equipment operator Randy Dickenson.

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.