Another Midway

It ruins countryside, but Norfolk Southern's proposed intermodal facility should be moved because it's in a stupid place to put it

Lost Creek is called Lost Creek because it flows into a sinkhole and goes underground to empty into the Holston River, underwater, downstream. Every four or five years the sinkhole gets stopped up and acres of farmland around it are covered by a lake for weeks at a time.

Lost Creek goes into that sinkhole hard by the New Market site picked by Norfolk Southern to build an intermodal facility, where trailer trucks would be loaded and unloaded onto rail cars for transhipment. This past month the excessive rainfall had formed a nice lake around Lost Creek and inspectors from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation got to observe what has been a regular occurrence for the 20 years I've lived in the neighborhood. And this time the sinkhole wasn't even stopped up, it just couldn't handle the volume of water. It's often worse.

The combination of that rain with a stopped-up sinkhole would have covered the intermodal site.

Jefferson County Tomorrow, the group opposed to putting the intermodal on farm land in New Market, has been encouraged by developments recently.

The proposed industrial park next to the intermodal site, which provided economic benefits in a University of Tennessee study to justify it, had its developer drop out. The county industrial development board considered stepping in and using its funds to buy the site, putting the county on the hook. But in a meeting last week the group decided to take "no action" on the purchase for now. It was a smart decision. Buying the site when opponents are still laboring to have it moved was a risky proposition.

The Jefferson County Commission, also in a meeting last week, has asked the county mayor and Norfolk Southern to provide them all the information about county obligations should the intermodal be constructed. Roads to be closed, new roads to be constructed, and infrastructure costs. Jefferson County Tomorrow has been unable to get straight answers on the proposal. The New Market site's roads going toward the river run out of a peninsula occupied by subdivisions and farms; the residents there will have to have some way to get to the highway if the three current roads in use are closed. A new road will likely have to be constructed. Who will pay for it?

There has also been a change in state administration. Gov. Phil Bredesen's Department of Transportation had some concerns with the New Market site. Sending 800 trailer trucks a day up state highways, 12 miles from the interstate, to the rail yard would result in damage the department would have to repair. A new road, providing a direct route, would cost millions. There are sites along the interstate that make more sense from the truck traffic standpoint. The railroad will have to start over making its argument for the New Market site with the incoming Haslam administration.

Jefferson County Tomorrow argues that New Market would be trading prime farm land and agricultural jobs for a few crane operators and a railroad switch yard. County government, using the UT study, promises employment and tax revenue. But without the warehouses, where are the economic benefits? Also, the group argues, how much do warehouse workers make and how many would be required?

Everyone agrees an intermodal facility makes sense from an environmental standpoint, getting trailer trucks off the interstate and onto rail cars. But there are brownfields up and down the rail lines, there are sites along the interstate, there are sites near the interstate with poor unproductive land best suited for industrial use.

From my house I go the other way to Knoxville and am not really affected by the intermodal facility. I'm not likely to see it very often. But I understand the angst of my neighbors upstream who will have their neighborhood ruined.

Of course, people have their countryside ruined with some regularity. And the argument against the intermodal in New Market isn't just about ruining the countryside. Like Midway Business Park, it is just a stupid idea that obligates local taxpayers, and it can happen only with the connivance of local government.