CHARLESTON — A legislative interim committee is calling for a meeting with Norfolk Southern railway officials to discuss ways to save West Virginia’s $18 million investment in the $32 million Heartland Intermodal Gateway facility in Wayne County.
Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, on Tuesday called for Norfolk Southern officials to appear before the Oversight Commission on Transportation Accountability before the state moves forward with plans to auction off the idled 100-acre road-to-rail cargo transfer complex.
“They owe it to the state of West Virginia, and they owe it to Wayne County,” Plymale said of Norfolk Southern officials. “I still think an intermodal facility can work there.”
Del. Vernon Criss, R-Wood, agreed that legislators need to hear from officials from the railroad, which cut off rail service to the facility in October because of low volumes of rail-to-truck container shipments.
“A lot of times we have faceless corporations in this state that we sometimes have a difficult time dealing with,” Criss said.
Legislators last month objected to state plans to auction off the facility, which opened in December 2015 to fanfare as a potential economic game-changer for southwestern and central West Virginia.
The $32 million facility — to which the state contributed $18 million — is expected to sell at auction for $1 million to $2 million.
Transportation Secretary Byrd White told legislators Tuesday that the facility never came close to the minimum 15,000 “lifts” of containers to and from railcars that Norfolk Southern demanded, with a total of just 579 lifts for the entire 2018-19 budget year.
He said the state paid Parsec, a Cincinnati-based intermodal terminal management company, more than $500,000 a year to operate the facility. From December 2015 to September 2019, total state revenue from the complex was $30,797, he said.
Bid opening for a contract to retain a real estate auction house to sell the property was held Dec. 30, and the bids are being reviewed by the state Purchasing Division before a contract is awarded.
White indicated that the only known likely bidder wants to use the complex as a railcar maintenance facility.
Two Wayne County commissioners, however, told the committee they believe the Prichard complex is viable as an intermodal facility if operated and marketed properly.
“This administration and the previous administration failed miserably to do due diligence to market this facility,” Commission President Robert Pasley said. “Not only do they not have customers, they never even contacted customers in the Prichard Industrial Park and other local customers that would have used this facility.”
He said the commission has had no input regarding the complex, other than being invited to initial events that he said involved “back-slapping and happy-handing and everything about how great it was.”
Asked about the commission’s vision for the facility, Pasley said, “We want to see a working intermodal facility there. We want those jobs it will bring, and we want to see the spinoffs that will be created by such a facility.”
“We don’t want to see this revert to a weed field,” added Commissioner Kenneth Adkins. “Time is of the essence.”
White last month told legislators that, under the agreement with Norfolk Southern, which donated most of the acreage for the complex, if there are no rail operations on site for 24 months, the railroad can reclaim ownership of the property.
He said the state is spending about $10,000 to $15,000 a month to provide security, utilities and basic maintenance for the idled facility.
The facility is part of the $290 million Heartland Corridor project, which permits double-stacked intermodal trains to operate on Norfolk Southern rail lines from Norfolk, Virginia, to Columbus, Ohio, and to Chicago. That project required heightening clearances in 29 tunnels, most of which are in West Virginia.