Thursday, May 30, 2024

Rocky Mount CSX rail project has bright future, with a big lift from Norris Tolson

I was curious what was up with the Carolina Connector rail project in Rocky Mount, which I’ll explain down below, but I was also looking for an excuse to call Norris Tolson.

My ideal job would be going around talking with folks 80 years old and up, because they have seen and know a lot. Tolson qualifies. He is 80.

Norris Tolson

Tolson was the guy governors like Jim Hunt called when there was an agency needed fixing. Transportation.  Commerce. Revenue. Tolson was secretary of all three in the ‘90s and 2000s.

Since 2016, Tolson has run an industry recruiter called the Carolinas Gateway Partnership up in Rocky Mount.

I wish he lived in Johnston County, because then my county might have landed the CSX rail project.

We had it.  Oh, we had it. But some landowners around Selma objected, and CSX started looking around. Tolson called the railroad and said if we can pull together enough property in Rocky Mount, would you look at us? And CSX said how quick can you do it, and Tolson said eight weeks. And CSX said something to the effect of, yeah, right.

In six weeks, Tolson had options on 700 acres across from North Carolina Wesleyan. And in the summer of 2016, after six months of jitters that the project would go to South Carolina or Virginia, Rocky Mount got it.

And now it looks like it is really happening.  “The buildings are up, the tracks are in,” Tolson said.  “The site’s been finished.” Tolson said the facility will be operational in January, once the cranes are assembled and tweaked.

The Connector will be a big train station for shipping containers.  Manufacturers will truck containers to Rocky Mount. The cranes will lift the containers off trucks and load them onto rail cars.  Then the trains will carry these containers long distances. At the other end, the containers will be lifted back on to trucks and taken to final destinations.

CSX has around 30 terminals around the country, including one in Charlotte, that specialize in moving cargo from trucks to trains and trains to trucks.  It is called “intermodal” because the containers move from one mode of transport to another; it is 15 percent of CSX’s revenue.  For decades, trucks chomped away at rail freight business.  Then railroads figured out how to use trucks themselves, at either end of their tracks. CSX’s target market:  9 million truckloads in the Eastern U.S. that travel more than 550 miles. Very specific. CSX has thought about this a lot.

It is cheaper to transport stuff long distances this way — an intermodal train can carry the load of 280 trucks — and manufacturers reduce their carbon footprint.

Big economic development projects aren’t done until they’re done. Companies change their minds.  When the Connector was first announced, it was going to be bigger, with five cranes.  Over the past four years, it has shrunk to three cranes. In 2017, CSX paused the project. A new CEO, James Foote, had taken over and was looking hard at intermodal, and how to make it run better. And do we need all these terminals?

In July 2018, Rocky Mount was back on again. In the spring of last year, ground was broken.  One major reason that Foote was posing with a shovel was that North Carolina ponied up $118.1 million for site development and roads.  CSX is on the hook for $40 million.  (Don’t be cheap. Think of this like that extra lane of I-40 to your job at RTP. Infrastructure is infrastructure.)

Also wielding shovels that April day: Tolson, front and center, and a Nash County guy, Gov. Roy Cooper.  (The railroad tracks, which helped Rocky Mount evolve in the 19th century from a Tar River village into a thriving commercial hub, split the town between Edgecombe and Nash counties.)

Things are breaking right for Rocky Mount and vicinity. Speed to market is all the rage. Because of its location, Rocky Mount is poised to become a logistics powerhouse. It sits astride two major north-south corridors on the Eastern Seaboard – Interstate 95 and the CSX “A” line from Florida to New York.

Rocky Mount is an hour from a major buyer of consumer goods, the Raleigh-Durham market. The Connector also is now one more argument for turning U.S. 64 and 17 into Interstate 87 to Hampton Roads and its sprawling port, one of the nation’s busiest. It is also an argument for extending tracks from Duplin County to Castle Hayne, to shorten the trip by rail from Rocky Mount to our Wilmington port.

With any luck, the Connector will attract warehouses and manufacturers to add to the new Corning distribution center, and the mammoth Triangle Tyre factory that will be built, if tensions with China can ease up for a minute, please, on 400 acres of Edgecombe County’s Kingsboro megasite.

“We have projects looking at every single acre in that park,” says Tolson.

Actually, luck doesn’t have anything to do with it. Give eastern North Carolina some infrastructure and folks like the 80-year-old Tolson will take care of the rest.

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