Norfolk Southern is scouting sites in the Birmingham area to build a terminal as part of a rail corridor stretching from the Northeast to New Orleans. The project could mean thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars in investment for the area.
Norfolk Southern is seeking incentives and is talking with state and local officials about the facility, seen as a key element in the company's $2 billion Crescent Corridor expansion. The company believes as many as 8,000 jobs could be created in the area as a distribution hub develops around the project.
"We are certainly looking in the Birmingham area for constructing a new terminal that will hopefully be part of a larger logistics hub," said Rudy Husband, spokesman for Norfolk Southern. "Intermodal terminals in and of themselves have some jobs, but the real job growth is the surrounding companies that are involved in logistics and distribution."
Ted vonCannon, president of the Metropolitan Development Board, said his organization has been working for nearly three years to land the intermodal terminal, where trucking containers would be loaded onto train cars.
"If we're fortunate enough to get the project, it could mean Birmingham will be a key point for moving goods in and out," vonCannon said. "It could be a great boon for our area."
Norfolk Southern said the Crescent Corridor aims to use a network of terminals and railway improvements along a 2,500-mile rail line from New Jersey to New Orleans to take as many as 1 million trucks off interstates by transporting their cargo via train. In Alabama alone, an estimated 300,000 trucks could be taken off the interstates each year, the company says. That would help alleviate congestion on the roadways and reduce emissions, saving an estimated 100 million gallons of fuel each year, it adds.
"Right now, more than 90 percent of the freight moving from the Southeast and the Gulf Coast up into the Northeast is moving by truck," said Rudy Husband, spokesman for Norfolk Southern. "If you look at the line segment between the New York metropolitan area and Chicago, it's about a 50-50 split. We believe there is an enormous opportunity to shift freight that's moving via the interstates over to rail."
The project also will be a boost to economic development efforts in Birmingham area, according to the company and local officials. Norfolk Southern rail lines have played a role in Alabama's recruitment of key projects, including Mercedes-Benz, Honda and ThyssenKrupp.
"We think once the Crescent Corridor is fully developed and operating in the next 10 years or so, there will be somewhere between 500 and 600 railroad jobs created in the Birmingham area," he said. "Then, if you look at surrounding development what we think will evolve when that intermodal terminal is built, we're looking at somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 jobs that will be positively impacted."
That would be on top of Norfolk Southern's existing operations in the state. The railroad company's Alabama operations are based in the Birmingham area. It operates 1,370 miles of track in the state, has 1,800 employees with a $102 million annual payroll, and makes $134 million in annual purchases and payments.
VonCannon said Norfolk Southern has evaluated six or seven sites in the greater Birmingham area.
Husband said terminals can cost between $60 million and $90 million, depending on size and fluctuations in construction costs. The intermodal facility would have multiple lines of railroad tracks and transfer points allowing containers to be moved from rail cars to truck beds, and vice versa.
Because of the promised benefits, Norfolk Southern has been asking states for financial support to expand the Crescent Corridor and develop new terminals. In February, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell proposed a $30 million boost to rail infrastructure in his state, while Virginia has given $45 million to aid the Crescent Corridor expansion.
"Where there are clearly identified public benefits to a project we're embarking on, we would like to get some public funding to assist in that," Husband said.
Neal Wade, executive director of the Alabama Development Office, said Norfolk Southern has made presentations about the Crescent Corridor to state officials but so far has not asked for a specific contribution.
"It appears it could be a real important infrastructure asset to the state," Wade said. "I've been in several meetings with them and from what I've heard, it could be an excellent project for Alabama."
Husband said Norfolk Southern is talking with Alabama and Tennessee officials about the Crescent Corridor and is having discussions with elected officials in Washington. He said the project might qualify for federal stimulus funds through the Alabama Department of Transportation.
"Those talks are ongoing, both locally and in Washington," he said. "We're just trying get people both from a political standpoint and from an agency standpoint educated about what is involved with this project -- what the benefits are and getting them more comfortable about being involved."
VonCannon said no specific timetable has been laid out for the intermodal terminal, though Norfolk Southern has indicated it would like to have it operating in the next two or three years.
"This could be one of the most significant projects we've seen -- in the same category as Mercedes and Honda when you consider the spin-off jobs," he said.