Charlotte Airport Rail Freight Facility Aims to Take Flight

Future airline passengers in Charlotte could peer down from the taxiway onto a 200-acre, $67 million train-truck hub bustling with shipping containers and tractor-trailers.

City officials are working with Norfolk Southern railroad to place a major freight terminal between two runways. Last week, Congress authorized $16.5 million for the project, more than half the public money needed to make the deal happen.

The so-called intermodal facility represents the fastest-growing part of Norfolk Southern's business, and these train-truck transfers would connect Charlotte more closely to the global marketplace, said Rob Martinez, the railroad's vice president for business development.

Norfolk Southern needs the space. Its 40-acre hub on North Brevard Street is too small to take any more traffic, and the metal containers used for international shipping spill over into the railroad's main yard.

Paved paths separate the tracks, lined by containers and extra truck chassis. Around the clock, orange cranes pluck containers off trains and load them onto trucks headed for stores and warehouses. Loaded trucks come, too, bringing containers that get placed on a train that leaves around midnight.

Charlotte, already a center for interstate distribution, hopes a large hub would lure more shipping and distribution companies.

"You bring these boxes in on the train and take them off the train and then you get the business that then grows up around that type of facility," said Tom Flynn, the city's economic development director.

Construction, if it happens, is still several years away. Officials from the railroad and the city must figure out many details.

Because most goods valuable enough to be shipped by air never go by train, the terminal's location at the airport is more coincidence than necessity.

Charlotte/Douglas is building a third runway, and both projects require long strips of land and extraordinary earthmoving. Grading the land simultaneously would save $17 million, Martinez said. The railroad would pay $22 million, he said, leaving the public's share at $28 million.

City officials will spend the next year refining those numbers and working with the railroad. A recent study by a consultant pegged the economic impact of the facility at $297.4 million over 20 years, with a broader benefit to the region of $7.6 billion.

Aviation Director Jerry Orr once planned to put the freight transfer station between the new runway and Interstate 485. But the runway had to move closer to the highway, leaving room for the new rail yard in between. Bridges will carry airplanes from the terminal to the new runway.

Few passenger airports have such a setup. Orr said the airport and rail yard would be secure.

The new location would have less impact on surrounding neighborhoods, but it still won't be pleasant, said Sue Friday, a west Mecklenburg resident and former member of the Airport Advisory Committee.

"I am horrified any time something like that is projected for the poor old west side," she said. "Yes, you could have jobs, but there are other ways to bring jobs and development."

Norfolk Southern's 40-acre intermodal site sits off North Brevard Street, next to the main rail yard. Every night, one train comes into the train-truck hub and another leaves. Because of space constraints, the yard is at its capacity of 120,000 container lifts per year. The land could be redeveloped if the new intermodal yard gets built.CSX has a separate intermodal yard in northwest Charlotte. Its plans for a new yard near Rock Hill are on hold.

It's a hub for transferring containers between trains and trucks. Containers that come in on trucks get hoisted onto trains. Those coming on trains get lifted onto trucks for delivery.

Jargon alert: "Intermodal" is different from "multimodal." The proposed multimodal station, on West Trade Street, would include Amtrak, local passenger trains and buses. That's a separate project.