CSX announced plans in 2016 to build major container hub near Rocky Mount
With construction set to begin on the Carolina Connector, state officials Wednesday praised CSX, the railroad company that will operate the terminal where cargo containers will be shifted between trucks and trains.
But CSX president and CEO James Foote said the railroad would not be involved with the project if not for the contributions of another group of people: taxpayers.
CSX is investing about $40 million in the Carolina Connector, know as CCX, mostly to purchase land for the hub that’s expected to handle 110,000 containers a year. The state, meanwhile, plans to spend $118.1 million for road improvements and to develop the 330-acre site, including buildings, rail sidings, parking and storage areas and the cranes needed to move the containers from trucks to trains and vice versa.
Despite the involvement of a private company that will own and operate the site, the state Department of Transportation considers the Carolina Connector a piece of public infrastructure not unlike a stretch of highway or a freeway interchange.
“The department has built, and will continue to build, a reliable transportation system that our people and our businesses need, want and will use,” state Secretary of Transportation Jim Trogdon said at a groundbreaking ceremony at N.C. Wesleyan College, a few hundred yards from the site of the terminal. “And we believe this project will satisfy all of those.”
CSX had originally planned to locate its container hub along its mainline through Johnston County, between Selma and Micro, but quickly ran into opposition from landowners. After CSX abandoned the project, Norris Tolson, head of the Carolinas Gateway Partnership, an economic development group based in Rocky Mount, asked if the company would be interested in building the terminal in Edgecombe County if the partnership could find the land.
In a few months, Tolson said, the partnership had 15 property owners lined up to sell 700 acres to the railroad along its tracks on the north side of Rocky Mount. Tolson said the property not needed for the terminal will be combined with land the partnership has available for development to try to lure manufacturers or logistics companies that want to be close to CCX.
“Though we haven’t signed anything yet, we’ve got clients that are interested,” he said.
When it opens in late 2020, the Carolina Connector is expected to employ 25 to 30 people, but could support another 1,300 jobs at companies that use the hub, according to NCDOT. The state also says that by taking trucks off the road, the yard will generate another $300 million in other benefits over time, including reduced shipping costs, emissions, traffic congestion and damage to highways.
CSX operates an intermodal truck-rail terminal in Charlotte, as does Norfolk-Southern railroad, which also has one in Greensboro. But CCX will be the first intermodal hub in the eastern half of North Carolina, which is why state officials were so keen to see it built.
“We really don’t have anything like this in Eastern North Carolina,” said Jason Orthner, head of NCDOT’s Rail Division. “So this becomes a big draw point for truck traffic from South Carolina to Virginia. It’s very strategically placed.”
Rocky Mount thrived because of its location on the railroad, which opened here in 1840 and runs down the middle of main street downtown, dividing Nash and Edgecombe counties. The counties are still recovering from the loss of tobacco and textile jobs that fueled the economy for decades, but local officials say the area is diversifying and that CCX and the better logistics it promises will help.
“This is going to be a railroad town again,” David Combs, the mayor, said at the groundbreaking ceremony.
The hub is also the second major investment by the state transportation department in Rocky Mount this year. A few miles down the road, the state Division of Motor Vehicles plans to move its headquarters from Raleigh, bringing more than 400 jobs to town.
‘Kind of the norm’
However much business sense the Carolina Connector makes, Foote, the CSX president, said the company would not have done the project on its own. The company has more than 30 intermodal terminals across the country, the largest in Chicago, and owns them all, he said.
But Foote said that over the last couple of decades new terminals have been built only with the help of local, state or federal governments.
“Not just CSX but the railroad industry in general has evolved through a process where that’s kind of the norm in the industry,” he said.
CSX has agreed to operate the Carolina Connector for nine years, but NCDOT will not simply walk away from the project once it is built. Gov. Roy Cooper said even before it opens, NCDOT will work with CSX to make sure companies in Eastern North Carolina know it is coming.
“The marketing is going to be important. These businesses have to know about this and what it can do,“ Cooper said. “We’re not going to rest on just shoveling dirt and celebrating. In many ways our job is beginning after we leave here today.”