Norfolk Southern Investment Moves Columbus, Ohio's Airport Rail Hub Closer to Fruition

Norfolk Southern Corp. has pledged $20 million for a proposed transportation hub at Rickenbacker Airport, fueling efforts to get the $65 million project off the ground ahead of schedule.

The hub, known as an intermodal yard, could be under construction by May and operating by fall 2005, said Elaine Roberts, chief executive of the Columbus Regional Airport Authority.

Initially slated for construction in 2006, the project is on the fast track because Norfolk Southern needs intermodal capacity and has agreed to spend millions to run rail lines to the yard southwest of Rickenbacker.

An intermodal yard allows freight to be easily transferred from one shipping mode to another. This would be the area's first yard with rail, air and truck service.

Norfolk Southern is exceeding capacity at a rail/truck intermodal yard it operates at Discovery Park, south of Columbus near Alum Creek Parkway, and has even turned away businesses at the yard.

"Business has been growing so fast out there,'' said Bill Harris, a Norfolk Southern vice president of public affairs. "We've averaged 14 (percent) to 15 percent growth a year.''

Roberts said the Rickenbacker operation would benefit the region because it would bring together all major forms of transportation at one location, giving companies more flexibility.

"This probably is one of the most exciting economic-development opportunities for our region,'' Roberts said.

Airport and railroad officials unveiled the project at an open house yesterday at Teays Valley High School in Ashville.

The estimated project cost is $65 million, but the airport said the intermodal yard would be built in two stages on 300 acres.

Norfolk Southern's investment would be the largest share of the first phase, but final costs are being determined. A start date for the second phase is not set.

Rickenbacker is bringing together officials from Columbus and Franklin and Pickaway counties to discuss extending utilities and improving highway access to the yard.

"My sense is everyone is committed to finding a way to get this done,'' Columbus development director Mark Barbash said. "It is a real opportunity for regional cooperation.''

Barbash said local officials are waiting for firm costs before deciding how the city can support the project.

Roberts said the rest of the project would be paid from a combination of local, state and federal resources. Those details still are being worked out, she said. Officials are seeking $11 million in federal highway money for road improvements.

The airport must complete environmental reviews, hold public hearings and receive Federal Aviation Administration approval. Norfolk Southern also has contacted six property owners near Rickenbacker about buying land. Rickenbacker owns 40 percent of the site.

Harris said no homes are located on the land where the intermodal yard would be located.

Most of the property to be bought is open farmland, Roberts said.

The airport, may however, buy homes adjacent to the intermodal yard, although the specific number of properties and homes has yet to be determined.

Airport officials compare the Rickenbacker project to AllianceTexas, a rail, air and truck intermodal operation near Fort Worth, Texas, that has attracted 110 companies and more than $4 billion in investment.