If location, location, location is the watchword of the real estate industry, it’s also the watchword in the political battle over a proposed intermodal center and logistics park at Gardner in Johnson County.
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and its partner Allen Group want to build the $700 million, 1,000-acre facility next to Gardner. It’s a large piece of open ground close to Kansas City, a major regional transportation hub, and next to I-35, one of the nation’s major transportation arteries, and beside the Transcon, the major east-west BNSF rail-line linking southern California and Chicago.
Opponents say the size of the proposed development -- and the diesel emissions, truck traffic and other consequences -- isn’t appropriate for a community like Gardner, and especially not upwind and next to a high school and residential neighborhood and uphill from the prime water source for much of the area southwest of Kansas City.
The complex would include an intermodal center, in which cargo containers are moved on and off trains and on and off trucks. The largest part of the complex would be a “logistics park” filled with warehouses, distribution centers and shipment points. Rather than being hauled immediately, many containers would be taken to the logistics park and the merchandise stored, reclassified or transshipped to retailers and wholesalers in the region.
The Gardner complex would be only the third of a type of new BNSF intermodal centers, a high-tech, highly efficient facility and among the cleanest going, said Steve Forsberg, BNSF general director of public affairs.
In terms of air quality and emissions, the Gardner facility would emit much less air pollution than BNSF’s intermodal facility at Argentine in Kansas City, Kansas, he said.
“That is an important part of the reason why a new facility such as this would have fewer emissions than an older facility that is using diesel cranes and hostler trucks to move loads within the facility,” Forsberg said.
Although it would have the same impact on the proposed Gardner facility and existing intermodal facilities, a significant factor would be that the federal government has issued rules that all diesel-powered engines and equipment must burn new super-clean diesel fuel to cut the amount of pollutants, he said.
“The draft Environmental Assessment prepared by the Corps of Engineers, with input and review by the Environmental Protection Agency, demonstrates that the proposed intermodal facility does not create serious impacts on local and regional air quality,” he said. “Any claim that it does is not supported by data or scientific analysis.”
Forsberg casts doubt on those critics who say that the jobs created by the complex would drive out higher-paying manufacturing jobs.
“Economic studies in Southern California show the opposite to be the case,” he said. “Not only is logistics one of the largest job creating industries in Southern California, the studies also show the jobs actually pay more on average than the semi-skilled manufacturing jobs the region has been losing.”
Rail is three times as fuel-efficient as trucks and will help significantly reduce emissions compared to freight hauled entirely by truck, he said.
‘That is why new intermodal facilities such as this are so important to develop,” Forsberg said. “They can enable areas such as Kansas City to grow and become greener by harnessing both the environmental efficiencies of rail and the door-to-door flexibility of trucks, while also creating thousands of good jobs for the whole region.”
Opponents of the proposal such as Eric Kirkendall aren’t as persuaded that the complex would have little harmful impact on the area and they have pressed for an Environmental Impact Study -- which is more expensive, more complicated and more time-consuming than anything that has been done to date.
“You have to remember that the Environmental Assessment is just a draft,” Kirkendall said. Numerous groups, agencies and individuals have submitted comments and data to the Corps of Engineers, he said.
“The final Environmental Assessment will tell a very different story,” he said.
BNSF officials have made presentations to Johnson County governmental bodies and to business groups that show that at full-operation, the intermodal center would make 1.5 million container lifts per year, Kirkendall said.
However, for the Environmental Assessment, the railroad cut the number of container lifts in half to minimize the impact on the assessment, he said.
No matter what assurances the railroad makes, the different numbers represent a significant impact in the emissions and traffic in the area, he said.
In addition, the railroad has been careful not to mention the secondary developments of other warehouses and distribution centers that aren’t in the logistics park but will be located nearby because of it, he said. These will cause the negative effects to increase sharply, Kirkendall said.
There is solid scientific and medical evidence that diesel-dense intermodal centers, railroads and highways pose significant health threats to people living beside them, he said.
Research from California indicates that adults living next to such complexes and corridors live seven to 10 years less on the average, he said.
What’s also ignored is that most of the “drayage” traffic between warehouses and intermodal centers is done by low-paid independent operators who run aging, indifferently maintained trucks, he said. Those haulers, which represent most of the traffic around intermodal centers, will be the last to switch to the cleaner diesel fuel, he said.
It’s not likely that Kansas will force the Gardner complex to adopt the same anti-pollution measures that California requires; yet the developers insist that the Kansas operation will be much cleaner than the California sites, he said.
And it’s what is not being said that will have an important bearing on the proposal, Kirkendall said.
Although the railroad touts the efficiency of shipping by rail, what the proposal boils down to is that the millions of cargo containers with goods from China and other Asian countries will be put on trains in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and then shipped to Kansas City instead of elsewhere, Kirkendall said.
“They’ve already closed the intermodal center in Oklahoma City in anticipation of this one in Gardner,” he said.
Then in a process similar to the airlines’ hub system, with Gardner as the hub, the containers will be put on trucks and hauled up to 500 miles away.
“At least the airlines fly their own planes to the hub and then fly their own airplanes down the spokes,” Kirdendall said. “The railroad doesn’t even do that.
“The BNSF will get the containers off the rail as fast as they can and put them on trucks that are going up to 500 miles away … what they’re doing is through-put.”
The proposed location has stirred political controversy in Gardner and Johnson County.
Originally, Gardner voters supported the city’s annexation of the site.
But, later, voters turned out council members who had supported an agreement with BNSF and Allen, and replaced them with new council members who opposed the deal.
The new council ended the agreement and de-annexed the site a few months ago.
In return, a Gardner group has launched a recall campaign to remove John Shepard and Mary Peters, two of the council members who voted to end the agreement and to de-annex the site.
Since Gardner ended the agreement, the neighboring city of Edgerton has signed a deal with the developers and is attempting to annex the site.
Because of a stream that runs through the proposed site that would have to be relocated, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must issue a permit that certifies that pollution at the site won’t have a significant effect on the watershed around Hillsdale Lake, the major source of drinking water for much of Johnson County, including Gardner and Edgerton.
Runoff from the site won’t contaminate Hillsdale Lake as opponents claim, Forsberg said.
“The project includes many more active water monitoring and protective measures than the agricultural run-off that had previously flowed from the property,” Forsberg said.
Kirkendall is skeptical.
Studies show that runoff increases and moves faster from sites that have lots of concrete and buildings, he said.
It picks up the oil and fuel drippings, debris and dirt, which flood into streams in the watershed, he said.
Opponents say the intermodal facility can and should be relocated to another proposed site south of Gardner near the Franklin-Douglas County line. The town of Wellsville is also on the Transcon and on I-35, and has also been looked at by BNSF and the Allen Group, according to Tom Weigand, president of the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce. There is no opposition to that site he has heard of, Weigand said.