Observing what has been going on with the proposal for an intermodal freight terminal in Johnston County is like watching a roller-coaster in action.
In mid-January, CSX, a major freight railroad serving the Eastern United States, announced it would construct a $272 million rail logistics terminal called the Carolina Connector (CCX) that could transform Eastern North Carolina’s economy. Federal, state and local officials applauded the announcement. However, within a few short days, several elected officials drastically changed their tone. Aside from N.C. Rep. Leo Daughtry, it seems public officials have forgotten how important economic development opportunities like CCX are to a place like Eastern North Carolina.
Our state has a growing history of losing major economic development projects such as Volvo, Continental Tire and Mercedes, which have all taken their projects elsewhere in the Southeast. Losing these projects not only means Eastern North Carolinians are missing out on well-paying jobs – much higher than the average household income in most parts of our area – but also missing out on the indirect jobs that these facilities create as they produce vibrant communities around them and have a ripple effect on the local economy. The state also suffers an economic loss as a result.
One way we can help reverse this trend is to make our state’s infrastructure stronger and more efficient, which is what the CCX would do.
Finding the right site for a public infrastructure project like CCX is no easy feat: a 350 to 400 acre, rectangular site with 2 miles of frontage along a main line and access to public utilities. As Eastern North Carolinians who have extensively researched and worked in economic development in our area, we, too, were encouraged by this project and the opportunity to bring jobs to our area.
According to the project website, CCX is projected to create 250 to 300 short-term construction jobs and, over time, up to 1,500 long-term positions statewide. The project would also divert truck traffic from our highways to rail – good for our highways and the environment.
The Panama Canal connection
The planned CCX terminal would establish Johnston County as a logistics hub for the entire Southeast at a time when the Panama Canal expansion nears completion. While we don’t know for certain how much impact expanding the canal will have on freight volumes coming to nearby ports, what is known is that the canal expansion project will double the capacity of the canal by allowing larger ships to transit it, improving efficiencies for freight-carrying ships coming east.
As a result, East Coast ports are investing billions to handle the influx of consumer goods arriving on our shores and improving opportunities for exporting U.S. manufactured goods and farm products. Meanwhile, transportation companies, such as CSX, are working to modify their networks to handle opportunities, better equip our ports to connect to the global economy and make distribution more efficient and less expensive for large and small businesses alike.
It is unfortunate that some people may be forced to sell their family land to make way for this project, but that is the price of progress, much the same as when a new freeway is built to serve area residents and businesses. Unfortunately, the public airing of complaints against the specific location of this project has made other states aware that CSX is ready to invest in a major project along I-95, meaning that those states will make offers to entice the project – and the investments and jobs that accompany it – to their communities instead of in North Carolina.
These types of projects create new opportunities for job growth, and society benefits as a result – in other words, they serve the greater good.
We remain hopeful our leaders will recognize the positive impacts a project like CCX brings to our region, our state and our future workforce. It’s time to redouble our efforts and work with companies like CSX who are willing to significantly invest in our state to enhance our infrastructure, attract other businesses and pave the way for much-needed economic development in the region.
Carmine Scavo is a professor and director of Master of Public Administration Program at East Carolina University. John D. Chaffee is president and CEO of NC East Alliance in Greenville.