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January 14, 2016 1:30 PM, EST
CSX to Build East Coast Intermodal Hub in North Carolina

Railroad behemoth CSX on Jan. 14 said it would make Johnston County, North Carolina, an East Coast hub for shipping and receiving cargo containers.

The company will build the Carolina Connector, an “intermodal terminal,” on 450 acres land between Selma and Micro. The $272 million hub will create 300 jobs in the short term and could spawn 1,500 jobs across North Carolina in the years to come, CSX said.

Louis Rejal, vice president of strategic infrastructure for CSX, said the company plans to spend $150 million and is looking to North Carolina’s Strategic Transportation Investment program for an additional $100 million.

The terminal will draw and reroute containers from East Coast trains and trucks and from North Carolina’s ports in Morehead City and Wilmington. Large robotic arms will unload cargo containers from freight trains and place them onto tractor-trailer rigs bound for their final destination, or vice versa. The company expects the hub to handle everything from agricultural products to consumer goods.

“It’s essentially an inland port,” said Chris Johnson, Johnston County’s director of economic development. “It’s absolutely massive. I can’t wait for people to travel up and down I-95 and see this facility and wonder, ‘What in the world is that?’ It’s that impressive.”

CSX points to the Northwest Ohio Intermodal Transfer Hub as the best glimpse into what Johnston County can expect. That terminal, which opened in 2011, handles 900,000 containers each year. Local leaders think the Carolina Connector could surpass that number.

“When you look at our community on a map, you see that everything a facility like this needs is right here,” Selma Mayor Cheryl Oliver said in a news release issued by Johnston County’s Economic Development Office. “This is a really good omen for all of eastern North Carolina.”

The timing of the project couldn’t be better for Johnston County’s Interstate 95 corridor, county leaders said. Board of Commissioners Chairman Tony Braswell said he thinks distribution centers will descend on Johnston, drawn by the ease of shipping offered by the CSX hub.

“This is going to give a great boost to our communities along the I-95 corridor and in the eastern part of the county, and we need that boost,” Braswell said in the news release.

“Our ports are also going to benefit from this, given Johnston County’s convenience to both Morehead City and Wilmington,” he added.

Already, food-service company Sysco and medical-device maker Becton, Dickinson and Co. have large distribution centers in Johnston County.

“Today’s distribution jobs are technology-driven jobs that offer a good living,” Allen Wellons, chairman of Johnston’s Economic Development Advisory Board, said in the news release. “CSX will bring additional economic diversification to our county, adding employment opportunities in logistics and transportation to the biomanufacturing, medical, retail, construction and agribusiness jobs we’re also growing.”

Johnson and Rejal compared the role of the container hub with that of airports in Charlotte and Atlanta.

“These airports collect passengers from all over and put them on higher-density flights,” Rejal said. “It will work exactly like that with containers.”

CSX has yet to buy or option the land it wants for the hub. Rejal said the company started contacting land owners at 8 a.m. on the day of the announcement and hoped to reach everyone by the end of the day. He said the company considered sites in bordering states before tapping Johnston County and North Carolina.

Rejal said the CSX hub will take pressure off of regional roadways, with companies choosing rail over rigs to move their cargo. He said the company’s Ohio terminal reduced traffic by 220,000 trucks annually.

“Rail is one of the most efficient ways to move freight in the world,” Rejal said. “One ton of cargo can move 400 miles on a single gallon of fuel.”

Nearly six months ago, Johnston County snagged one of the biggest economic-development projects in state history when insulin maker Novo Nordisk said it would build a second plant in Clayton. The $1.2 billion plant will open in five years and employ about 700 people, the company said.

To convince Novo to choose Johnston over sites in Massachusetts and New Jersey, county commissioners promised to return $94 million in property taxes over 15 years. Also, the state chipped in $18.6 million.

Johnson thinks the CSX hub will have an even greater impact on Johnston County and North Carolina.

“Johnston County’s I-95 corridor took a tremendous hit in the mid-1990s, as we lost textiles, manufacturing and tobacco,” Johnson said. “Now other industries will be looking to Johnston County because of this property. There are already certified sites in Benson and Selma that we think will be attractive to companies. We’re ready for the wave of growth this will bring, and I think the ancillary jobs this creates will be the greatest benefit.”

The CSX announcement came in the same week the company said fourth-quarter revenue fell 13% from the year before, hurt by a decline in coal transports. Analysts think intermodal transport could help CSX replace some of the revenue from coal.