A proposal by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and the Kansas City-based Allen Group to build what they call an environment-friendly 21st-century high-tech intermodal freight complex near Gardner in southwestern Johnson County has run into a train-load of opponents who want to derail the project and who say there’s little in it that’s beneficial to the environment or the community.
The BNSF and Allen Group seek to develop a more-than-$700-million complex of approximately 1,000 acres next to Gardner, a fast-growing city of about 17,000 which is about 30 miles from downtown Kansas City, next to the BNSF’s premier rail route, called the “Transcon,” which connects Los Angeles and Chicago.
The complex would include an intermodal center for moving cargo containers, which look like squat truck trailers without wheels -- which is exactly what they are -- on and off trains and hooking them to trucks. The other part of the complex would a “logistics park” filled with warehouses, distribution centers and shipment points. The containers would be taken to the logistics park and the merchandise stored or trans-shipped to retailers and wholesalers in this region.
The site is good for the proposal, said Steve Forsberg, a BNSF spokesman. The site has enough undeveloped land next to BNSF’s main-line railroad and to I-35, one of the major U.S. north-south highways, and is close to Kansas City, a major regional trade hub, he said.
The Gardner site is of a new, more efficient design that’s the third one of its kind, he said.
The site would be a concentrated source of Diesel-powered air pollutants, heavy truck traffic and noise a half-mile from residential neighborhoods, next to a county park and less than three-quarters of a mile upwind of a large high school, and upwind from Kansas City, which has had air-quality issues with federal regulators, said Lisa Meisinger, an activist who’s spent three years knocking on doors in Gardner to galvanize opposition to the proposal.
The word according to BNSF
And the word is “transportation,” Forsberg said.
“The entire history of Kansas City is about transportation,” he said. “Even before there was a city, there were Indian trails and trails such as the Santa Fe Trail.”
The proposal would cut pollution and environmental damage because the containers are coming into the region on rail cars – a more energy-efficient, less polluting form of transportation – rather than by being hauled in by trucks, he said.
The complex would be of a new design that cuts the number of movements to transport the cargo around, he said. Under federal law, Diesel-powered locomotives, trucks and industrial equipment must convert to a cleaner, low-sulfur Diesel fuel, which would eliminate most of the problems with pollution that might otherwise arise from older intermodal centers, he said. The Gardner complex would be the third of its kind, he noted.
The site would provide hundreds of jobs, a source of tax revenue and a major investment for the area, he said.
Opponents have their facts wrong, he said.
The word according to HELP
That’s Hillsdale Environmental Loss Prevention, referring to Gardner and the site being in the environmentally-sensitive watershed of Hillsdale Lake, the major source of water for many cities and rural Johnson County – more on Hillsdale later.
The railroad has admitted that thousands of trucks would be entering or leaving the complex each day, Meisinger said. Diesel pollution is a proven health hazard, and the traffic, lights and noise would blight the community, she said. Water runoff from the site would eventually contaminate Hillsdale Lake, she said.
Although supporters tout the financial benefits of the proposal, the health and other costs would outweigh any benefits, Meisinger said.
“We’re fighting for our future,” she said.
During a recent HELP information meeting about the costs of the proposal, Angelo Logan, a California activist who said he lives next to an intermodal center, said intermodal jobs are illusory. Most of the containers are full of merchandise made in China or other low-wage Asian countries, he said. Based on the experience of the California intermodal centers that ring the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, intermodals drive away good-paying jobs and replace them with low-paying temp warehouse jobs, he said.
Meisinger said the railroad is fudging the facts, and in some cases rewriting them, in their attempt to lowball the environmental and social costs of the intermodal center.
A train switch
Originally, Gardner voters supported a proposal that the city annex the site.
But when the community became aware of the consequences of the proposal, support cooled, Meisinger said.
At the last election, voters turned out council members who had supported the agreement with BNSF and Allen and the annexation, and replaced them with council members who opposed the deal.
Earlier this year, the new council ended the agreement and voted to de-annex the site.
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 de-annex.
The Johnson County attorney’s office ruled last week that the petitions met state legal standards and that the group could continue with the recall drive.
Since the de-annexation, local politics have been in an uproar, Meisinger said.
“The pro-development group hasn’t given up,” she said.
In the neighborhood
The turmoil has spread. Since Gardner chose to walk away from the deal, the neighboring city of Edgerton has signed a deal with the developers and is attempting to annex the site instead. Supporters say Gardner missed the boat on a once-in-a-lifetime economic opportunity. Opponents sourly note that it’s a great deal for Edgerton – it doesn’t have to live with the consequences.
Less controversial sites are farther away from Kansas City.
The railroad has looked at a site just north of Wellsville next to the Franklin-Douglas county line, said Tom Weigand, president of the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce. Wellsville is southwest of Gardner but is also on the BNSF mainline and next to I-35.
However, the site had some disadvantages for the railroad, he said.
“But we would do anything that’s possible to get them in here,” Weigand said. He said he’s never heard of any opposition to locating the site in Franklin County.
“In fact, we get phone calls asking if there’s anything we can do to bring them here,” Weigand said.
Weigand said that he’s been told that the railroad has been doing tests at the Wellsville site. However, he believes that the testing is being done to meet the requirements of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulations rather than any new-found interest in Franklin County.
Even if the intermodal were built at Gardner, Franklin County would receive some noticeable benefits, including new residents who would live in the Wellsville area but commute to Gardner, and businesses that would have ties to the warehouses and transportation centers at the intermodal center, he said .
Indeed, Ottawa had been positioning itself as a distribution hub even before BNSF decided to pursue the idea of an intermodal center nearby.
Two of Ottawa’s biggest employers are a giant Wal-Mart Distribution Center that serves the company’s stores in a multi-state region, and an American Eagle Outfitters distribution center that serves most of the retailer’s stores in the western United States, he said.
Lebo, a small town in Coffey County that’s also along the Transcon and on I-35 about 30 miles southwest of Ottawa, has also been suggested as an alternative site. It’s also close to U.S. 75, a major north-south highway that goes through Topeka.
John Hotaling, Coffey County economic development director, said Lebo would likely be pleased to be considered.
“I’m sure they would work with the railroad as much as they possibly can,” Hotaling said.
However, Forsberg said alternative sites aren’t as attractive.
It’s been the railroad’s experience from its other intermodal-logistics parks, that the farther an intermodal park is from a regional hub such as Kansas City, the less interest from warehouse and distribution companies, he said.
Obstacles and Hillsdale, too
One obstacle is the poor economy.
Transporting freight is unusually sensitive to economic swings, Forsberg said. Because of the economy, the railroad has put the intermodal proposal on the back-burner, awaiting better times in future years, he said.
However, that might not be an insuperable obstacle. The Kansas Department of Transportation announced last week that it’s applying for a $50-million economic stimulus grant, called a TIGER grant, to be used to help in the construction of the center.
If the state gets the TIGER grant, BNSF would begin building the intermodal center next year, Forsberg said. If the grant doesn’t come through, the proposal will remain on the shelf, he said.
One big obstacle to the center is a bit of federal paperwork called a 404 permit.
Because a stream runs through the proposed site and would have to be relocated, the site could have a significant effect on the watershed around Hillsdale Lake. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must grant the 404 permit to allow the development.
Opponents say the water-quality regulations are clear, and they have been staging an effort to prod the Corps to adopt their interpretation.