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Official says railways
key to growth

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com 340-2443

COURTLAND — Alabama won't reap the full benefits of planned expansions at its state docks without a north-south rail corridor from Mobile to the Midwest, said an economic development researcher at The University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Senior business adviser Jeff Thompson with the Office for Economic Development at the college discussed transportation's impact on economic growth at a Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce meeting Tuesday.

Transportation team

He is part of a 24-member team charged with determining how Alabama's transportation systems — airports, railroads, roads and ports — will either enable or constrain future economic growth.

The team's findings so far?

"Independent modality is not working," said Thompson.

He said state officials have put a lot of money into the docks but must also focus on railroads if they want to capitalize on the expanded port.

The Alabama State Port Authority and the Mobile Container Terminal agreed in January to construct a major container-handling facility at the state docks. That, and other planned expansions, could put Mobile in the top 10 container ports in the U.S.

State docks

According to the Department of Transportation Maritime Administration, the state docks received and distributed about 80,000 containers last year. In comparison, Los Angeles moved about 5.5 million.

The administration, however, estimates that Mobile will be moving 4.25 million by 2020, following the planned expansions, said Thompson.

That sounds great for Alabama's economy, but what happens once the shipments arrive?

Most are loaded onto trains that deliver the cargo to manufacturers or distribution centers. Without an adequate railroad system to transport the goods to their final destination, they either get stuck in Mobile or, more likely, don't get shipped to Mobile in the first place.

"They don't bring freight in just to ship it to Alabama," said Thompson. "They bring it here to ship up to the Midwest. We can't increase the amount of containers we move if we can't get them off the dock."

Railways

Though Alabama has one of the highest concentrations of railways in the U.S., there isn't a line running directly north from Mobile. This limits final destinations for shipments coming into state ports, said Thompson.

Currently, many containers headed for North Alabama from other countries are shipped to ports in California — not Mobile — because there's a direct route available from the West Coast.

"You can ship from the West Coast to North Alabama in three days, but it takes five to six days from Mobile because it has to zigzag up the state," he said.

A north-south line, combined with the state's existing industries, location and resources, could make Alabama the "freight gateway to mid-America," said Thompson.

Getting the major railroad operators to consider constructing a north-south corridor has been somewhat of a Catch-22, he said.

Rail officials have said they won't consider adding the line until shipments to the state docks increase, but shipments aren't likely to increase without a new line to distribute the cargo, said Thompson.

Norfolk Southern unveiled plans this month for a $2 billion rail corridor from New Orleans to New Jersey. Thompson said the company's decision to start in Louisiana rather than Alabama was a major concern.

"The fact is we're not going to have as much to offer," he said.

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