The future of the Heartland Intermodal Gateway at Prichard remains uncertain, but Wayne County officials have until the end of the month to come up with a plan to rescue it.
The rail-to-truck facility has never lived up to its promise of becoming a major shipping point for counties in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio. At a meeting of the West Virginia Public Port Authority last week, West Virginia Transportation Secretary Byrd White said the implications of a long-term lease on the facility just became too complicated, so he recommended the state sell the 100-acre facility along Norfolk Southern tracks in Wayne County to the highest bidder.
After hearing pleas from members of the Wayne County Commission in attendance, the board moved to postpone a decision on the public sale of the facility. The Port Authority gave Wayne County officials until the end of the month to submit proposals to save it.
The Prichard facility provides businesses with a truck-and-rail transfer option along Norfolk Southern's Heartland Corridor, a 530-mile stretch of track running from the Port of Virginia at Hampton Roads through West Virginia and on to Chicago. Each day trains moving on the Heartland Corridor carry hundreds of shipping containers.
Those trains run through Wayne, Mingo, Wyoming, McDowell and Mercer counties. There are intermodal facilities in Virginia and Ohio that ship and receive containers. In theory, an intermodal facility in West Virginia would take advantage of all that freight movement and give southern West Virginia a gateway into more international markets.
But things haven't worked out that way in the half decade or so the Prichard facility has been open.
Last month, White said Prichard had only 579 lifts of containers off railcars to trucks at $30 a lift in the 2019 fiscal year. That came to $17,370 in income. But the terminal had $522,000 in expenses for a loss of about half a million dollars.
At two containers per rail car, that's 290 carloads, or about three normal trains. Three trains in one fiscal year. That's not much business for a $36 million capital investment. This year's state budget has no money to subsidize the facility. Thus, the Port Authority wants rid of it.
It may be a telling feature that the state built the Heartland Intermodal Gateway, not private investors. That should have been a red flag about demand for an intermodal shipping terminal at Prichard. If there was enough demand and enough profit potential, the state would not have had to invest any money in it.
In the past, local and state officials have assumed the role of real estate developers. Sometimes their efforts bear fruit, although results may take time. Consider Pullman Square in downtown Huntington as one example. At other times, though, they learn the hard way why private money does not follow some projects.
As far as the Heartland Intermodal Gateway is concerned, the burden of proof now lies with officials in Wayne County. They will need to find a company or an agency that is willing to take a chance on a rail-truck terminal that last fiscal year handled the equivalent of three trains. New management may have, to use a cliche, to think outside the box. Better, it will need to think beyond the box or build a new box.
It's too early to declare the Heartland Intermodal Gateway a failure. That judgment will have to wait until the end of this month or this year, by which time we should know if there is any interest in the property.