When Johnston County commissioners adopted a resolution last week in support of a proposed CSX logistics hub in their county, their action raised hopes that the project – known as Carolina Connector, or CCX – could move forward.
“Now, therefore, be it resolved that the Johnston County Board of Commissioners commits its support for an intermodal terminal in Johnston County,” the resolution stated. “Be it further resolved that this resolution shall be transmitted to the delegation of General Assembly members representing the citizens of Johnston County and to the governor.”
The resolution’s preamble cited numerous benefits of the proposed project, and stated that the board of commissioners “supports the assemblage and acquisition of the property needed for terminal construction and operations” and “urges engagement with affected property owners prior to and throughout the process to work toward a beneficial outcome.”
Asked for comment on this development, CSX officials released a statement.
“CSX appreciates the support for the CCX intermodal rail terminal recently voiced by local organizations and community members. We continue to be committed to this infrastructure project which will create jobs, deliver a distinct competitive advantage for large and small businesses, and spur economic development. We look forward to working with all interested stakeholders to move the project forward.”
The company declined to clarify whether Johnston County was still its chosen site for the hub.
Last week’s resolution represents a subtle change in the commissioners’ stance regarding the project.
When it was announced in mid-January, the proposed $272 million intermodal freight rail hub generated enthusiasm from county officials, as well as legislators, N.C. Department of Transportation officials and Gov. Pat McCrory.
N.C. State Ports Authority officials and U.S. Rep. David Rouzer (R-7th District) said the project could be a “game changer” for eastern North Carolina and the greater Wilmington area, because of the jobs it would bring, the additional volume of container cargo the hub would generate for the Port of Wilmington, and the potential it would have for attracting distribution centers and related businesses to the surrounding area.
Objections soon surfaced, however. A number of Johnston County property owners whose land lies in the proposed project footprint objected to selling their land, especially when the specter was raised of CSX taking the land through the process of eminent domain.
On Jan. 20, the county commissioners officially backed away from endorsement of the Johnston County site, issuing a letter that endorsed the concept of the hub but remaining sensitive to landowner issues. When asked, following last week’s resolution, why the commissioners were now voicing support, board chairman Tony Braswell issued a statement.
"Some have asked me how I reconciled the Board of Commissioner's resolution on CCX passed last evening with the statement released under my name on January 20th. Our statement from two months ago made clear Johnston County welcomed CCX and the very positive economic benefits it would bring our county, region and state. Last night's resolution simply serves to reiterate that hope. I remain steadfast in my belief that Johnston County, with its unique assets and strategic location, would be a great choice for this exciting infrastructure development initiative."
The commissioners' stance really has not changed, Johnston County economic development director Chris Johnson said Tuesday. He pointed out that the Jan. 20 letter was not an official position, and that the board's Mar. 23 vote was the first the board had taken on the proposed project.
"From that, our task is to find other available sites in the county," Johnson said. "An exact location has yet to be determined."
While Johnston County would like to land the project, it would be beneficial to the region anyplace in eastern North Carolina, he added. At least two other counties, Wayne and Robison, have expressed eagerness to have the project come their way.
CSX, meanwhile, has been mum on its plans. Johnson said he has not spoken with anyone at CSX since Jan. 14, the day of the company's announcement.
The N.C. State Ports Authority is still strongly supportive of the project, and officials there are hopeful it will proceed, spokesman Cliff Pyron said Tuesday.
“CCX will greatly enhance North Carolina’s freight transportation network and provide capabilities that improve the efficiency of cargo movement throughout the region,” he said in an email. “The North Carolina State Ports Authority promotes economic growth through facilitating commerce in the State of North Carolina. We’ve long advocated for intermodal rail service and this proposed CSX terminal would serve as a major transportation hub and important intermodal connection for the Port of Wilmington.”
Currently, although container cargo volume continues to grow at the Port of Wilmington, CSX does not currently provide container rail service there. That would change if CCX moves ahead.
CSX has said it will immediately develop direct container rail shuttle service from the Port of Wilmington to the company’s terminal in the Charlotte area, which could quickly increase container volume traffic to and from the port. Longer term, construction of the logistics hub would send higher levels of truck-to-rail container cargo to the port.
Landowner opposition is not the only hurdle facing the CCX project. CSX has stated that it expects $100 million of the overall $272 million project cost to come from North Carolina's Strategic Transportation Initiative (STI). While N.C. DOT officials sounded optimistic early-on, there has been no comment on CCX from the transportation department since late January.
NC DOT spokesman Steve Abbott said in an email Tuesday afternoon that the STI scoring that involves the possible $100 million state share in project funding should be released in the next week or two.