Reoriented Express

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One of the first things I do when I’m investigating something is to collect–and, of course, to read–as many relevant documents as I can. Establishing a paper trail is a useful exercise for any number of reasons, not least because it gives you a sense of the chronology, and understanding of the issues involved, leads on who to ask for more information, and government agencies put out reams of reports and documents on their work.

The “Reoriented Express” — the effort to move a stretch of railrod track owned by CSX from its current position, somewhere between a quarter and a half mile from the beaches of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, to an inland position — has generated its share of paper. There was a 1995 report prepared for the Gulf Regional Planning Commission, followed by a report and Web site set up by the Gulf Coast Railroad Relocation Project. That latter report was the first to note the prohibitive price tag for moving the railroad inland; it offered rough cost estimates for three different inland routes:

The test alignment within Corridor 1 has a unit cost of $36.0 million per mile, and a total cost of $2,683,695,296.

The test alignment within Corridor 2 has a unit cost of $22.8 million per mile and a total cost of $1,804,661,425.

The test alignment within Corridor 3 has a unit cost of $22.8 million per mile and a total cost of $2,437,212,170.

What followed next resulted in the report I’ve found most interesting as I’ve read up on the reoriented express. The Gulf Regional Planning Commission stopped drafting its draft enviornmental impact statement in Sept. 2003, and redirected its conslutant, DMJM Harris, to work instead on a Tri-State Economic and Transportation Benefits Study. Completed shortly before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the purpose of the study was to examine “the benefits of an expanded rail relocation to a broadened constituency and stakeholder base in Mississippi, Louisiana and/or Alabama.”

I don’t think I’m taking too many liberties when I read that to mean that its intent was to justify the multi-billion dollar price tag by enumerating the benefits that will be produced. Indeed, the report tells us, “Even under conservative assumptions regarding the accrual of benefits, the Gulf Coast Railroad Relocation Project pays for itself through economic benefits it generates within approximately eleven years of the start of operation.” (p. 8)(emphases in original). And the way the report intends to show those benefits is to outline the beneficiaries of a new, inland railroad corridor stretching from Baton Rouge, La., to Mobile, Ala.

Among them is CSX Transportation, the company that owns the current rail tracks, and presumably would be able to claim some portion of the $700 million earmark inserted into an emergency appropriations bill (H.R. 4939 for those of you keeping score at home) by Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., to pay for the federal share of the project. I’ve already suggested that I don’t think CSX is driving the effort to move its tracks, although obviously, it can’t be ruled out yet. But the Tri-State Economic and Transportation Benefits Study calls for a project that’s bigger than just moving CSX’s seaside tracks north; it would create an additional north-south rail corridor, parallel CSX tracks that wouldn’t be replaced, replace some line currently operated by the Canadian Northern Illinois Central railroad, and generally be much more ambitious in scale than the original effort to move some CSX tracks further north.

The study notes a number of other industries and companies that potentially would benefit from this more ambitious plan. I’m listing them all here, in the order in which they appear:

1). The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS): They’re building a $600 million aircraft assembly plant at the Brookley Complex in Mobile, Ala.

2). Wal-Mart: Like EADS, they have a new venture in the area (but outside Mississippi)–a major distribution facility in Hammond, La.

3). Other railroads: Kansas City Southern, the Norfolk Southern, the Canadian National Illinois Central and the Union Pacific all operate in the area; the study says, “The establishment of a new Inland Rail Corridor from Mobile to Baton Rouge offers the potential for transformation of rail traffic movements across the southeastern United States,” but also notes that how railroads would share the route has yet to be determined. In this context, it’s important to remember how railroads work: not only are they paid to ship freight, they also can earn money by charging other railroads “trackage,” that is, to use their tracks. If an inland rail corridor were built from Mobile to Baton Rouge, rather than simply as a replacement of the CSX rails that run across the southern Mississippi coast, it’s unclear who would own which portion of which tracks, or whether the tracks would be owned entirely by some other entity–say, a multistate authority with representatives from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

4). Real Estate Developers: The report tells us that, “Removing freight train traffic from the CSXT Mainline [that is, along the Gulf Coast] and CNIC Hammond Subdivision corridors opens up new development possibilities” and that “[a]n overall consensus among stakeholder interviewees is that property values in the vicinity of the rail lines are lower and that if the rail lines were removed, property values would increase.”

5). Property owners: The above passages would also apply to current property owners, especially those on either side of the Gulf Coast railroad track. These would include, as something of a subset…

6). Casino owners: The study tells us that, “Some stakeholders felt that the presence of a freight railroad was a constraint on the character of development as well as its spatial pattern, that the rail line stops the scale of development. One stakeholder offered the example of the current President Casino Broadwater Resort expansion project to illustrate this possibility. Were the rail line not there, the resort would have had the opportunity to be designed on a larger scale, connecting to golf courses that were located further inland for example.” (emphasis added).

7). Local and state government: Never discount the appeal that big federal appropriations have for local and state officials, who sometimes lobby the federal government for them. Also economic development means more tax revenue to spend, and, as the report notes, “anticipated expansion of the Inland Rail Corridor economies increases the tax base, yielding an increase in tax collections.”

8). Chemical manufacturers: “Some of the region’s largest employers,” the study tells us, “rely on rail service to provide them with the inputs they use for production and to connect them to the market for their finished product. Stretching from Mobile County in Alabama to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the ‘Chemical Corridor’ would be a prime beneficiary of the rail service improvements enabled by relocating the rail line inland. Other key rail shippers in the region include the Chevron plant in Pascagoula, MS, and the numerous ports that line the coast.” Later, it tells us that chemical shipments along the rail lines were valued to an estimated $20.1 billion in 2004, although this was an imprecise calculation based on the 1997 Economic Census (more current figures weren’t available to the study’s authors).

9). Other manufacturers: The study also says, in addition to the chemical industry, that there are steel, concrete and other manufacturers of “refined products” in the area.

Now, I should add that the study also points to other beneficiaries, not the least of which would be the average Gulf Coast resident living within a few miles of tracks traversed by 26 trains a day going at an average speed of 25 miles per hour, crossing some 160 intersections, carrying hazardous materials including noxious chemicals, all within a stone’s throw of schools and parks and what not. The study looks at public safety, favorable environmental impacts, benefits from improved highway traffic patterns, and so on.

But this does give us a pretty interesting list of companies and interests to explore, which we’ll continue doing tomorrow…

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