City hopes new rail yard kicks off boom around airport

elyportillo@charlotteobserver.comDecember 30, 2013 

A long-awaited rail yard at Charlotte Douglas International Airport has started moving cargo, and city leaders are hoping the new facility will help spark a building boom and lure new businesses to land around the airport.

Nestled between two runways on a patch of cement sunk 40 feet below ground level, the 200-acre Norfolk Southern rail yard moves shipping containers from trains to trucks, and vice versa.

Economic development officials say the “intermodal yard” – so called because it moves rail freight from one mode of transportation to another – will help Charlotte become a bigger player in the logistics industry. It’s built to handle 200,000 such transfers a year, with parking for 1,331 trucks.

“It increases our capacity,” said Ronnie Bryant, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Partnership. “It truly legitimizes our efforts to be a logistics center. Logistics plays right into manufacturing.”

Last week, rolling cranes hoisted metal shipping containers off double-stacked rail cars while 18-wheelers moved in and out of the yard bearing boxes loaded with cargo. Planes crept over the sunken rail tracks on taxiway bridges to and from runways, while other jets thundered in to land.

In an effort to spur development, the Charlotte City Council recently established a staff committee to study what infrastructure needs to be built around the airport.

“This is the beginning of something we feel is really big for the city, the airport and the region,” said assistant aviation director Jack Christine, chairman of the committee. The group, which includes representatives from the city manager’s office, planning, transportation and utilities departments, plans to present its findings to the City Council in about six months.

The hope is that improved roads and other infrastructure, such as water and sewer service, will attract more businesses, including manufacturing, trucking and warehouse companies. More than 5,000 acres of largely undeveloped land known as Dixie Berryhill sits west of the airport, and Charlotte Douglas is spending $35 million to buy a 370-acre neighborhood south of the rail yard.

Christine said about 25 properties in the neighborhood have been purchased, and an additional 60 are at the appraisal stage before the airport buys them. The plan is to raze the houses and use the land for businesses tied to the rail yard.

Charlotte’s capital improvement plan also includes $43 million worth of road improvements in Dixie Berryhill. Christine said his committee is looking at the best way to build those roads, which will also include modifications to straighten and expand existing roads.

A grand opening of the intermodal yard is planned for next year, said Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman. Most of the rails have been laid and rolling cranes are in place, but construction of buildings and support facilities is ongoing.

The lot cost $92 million, including almost $16 million worth of state and federal grants. North Carolina and Charlotte also funded $9.7 million worth of road improvements around the rail yard, including a new interchange at Interstate 485 and West Boulevard that allows trucks easier access to the facility.

The rail company is paying Charlotte Douglas $1 million in rent each year and has the option to expand the yard if it chooses. Norfolk Southern is also closing its 40-acre rail yard north of uptown, which will give Charlotte the opportunity to redevelop that land.

A long time in the making

The airport’s plan for making itself a logistics center dates back more than a decade. A 1997 report by consultant Michael Gallis sums up the long-range idea: “Build Charlotte into the fourth major logistics hub on the East Coast of North America to compete with New York, Atlanta and Miami.”

Intermodal shipping is on the rise nationwide, as companies look to ship more goods by rail closer to their final destination. That’s because shipping long distances by rail is generally cheaper and more fuel-efficient than shipping by trucks.

Projections call for the expanded rail yard to take 392,000 long-haul truck trips off the road each year in North Carolina, as more goods move by train. Although the rail yard will employ about 160 people directly, the Charlotte Regional Partnership estimates it will generate 7,000 new jobs throughout the region by 2030.

The companies that use intermodal shipping to move products through Charlotte include many recognizable names, according to the Charlotte Regional Partnership, such as Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Target and Whirlpool.

Norfolk Southern is building a $2.5 billion project called the Crescent Corridor, designed to upgrade tracks between New Jersey and Louisiana along with a network of new intermodal yards. The company opened a new intermodal yard in Memphis, Tenn., that is twice the size of Charlotte’s, at 400 acres. Earlier this year, Norfolk Southern also opened new intermodal yards in Birmingham, Ala., and Greencastle, Pa.

Norfolk Southern competitor CSX is also expanding its rail network with the $850 million National Gateway project.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo

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