Winter 2016 Issue

Bridging the Gap Through Public-Private Partnerships

OneRail Coalition Working to Build Relationships

New York State DOT
Norfolk Southern is partnering with New York State DOT to build
a $70 million span to replace the aging Portageville Bridge over
the Genessee River Gorge in Letchworth State Park.

Built 140 years ago, the historic Portageville Bridge in western New York has become a problem for the region’s freight industry. To cross the span, operated by Norfolk Southern, trains must drop their weight 13,000 pounds below industry standards and travel no faster than 10 mph.

The aging infrastructure has impeded Norfolk Southern’s ability to serve the region and affects several short lines that use the track to cross the Genesee River Gorge in Letchworth State Park, the so-called “Grand Canyon of the East,” in Livingston and Wyoming counties. 

Getting approval to replace the 820-foot bridge in a state park, 254 feet above the river, wouldn’t be easy and it was going to be expensive. So the railway partnered with the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), which provided grants to fund an environmental study and preliminary engineering of the new bridge.

Several years later, work is now underway to build a new $70 million Portageville Bridge 75 feet south of the existing structure, which is expected to bolster the region’s businesses and create jobs. 

Representatives from Norfolk Southern and NYSDOT discussed their partnership at the Northeast Association of State Transportation Officials meeting in Wilmington, Del. in June. The panel was one of many OneRail Coalition, an advocacy group that aims to promote the benefits of strong freight and passenger rail, has organized in recent years to highlight the benefits of public/private partnerships.

The panels are the brainchild of Anne Canby, executive director of OneRail. They seek to address the hesitation state officials often have about investing public funds into private projects and the apprehension railroads have about working with public partners. Canby said both sides may not realize the benefits of working together, but she hopes these panels will change that and spur conversations that lead to more partnerships.

“It’s a learning experience for the railroad as well as for the state,” Canby said. “It’s useful from both perspectives, to get the railroads feeling like these partnerships are worthwhile from their standpoint as well as getting states to understand the value and benefit of partnering.”

Canby, a former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation and a former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, said state transportation departments tend to focus on road infrastructure improvements. But with the passage of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act – the 2012 federal transportation funding bill, which required the federal government to establish a national freight network to assist states in directing resources to improve freight movement – they began working on their freight plans and she saw an opportunity to foster partnerships by highlighting successful projects.

 “The reason why we want to do this is to begin to put out there the partnerships that are happening and have each side talk about the value and the benefits, and even get into some of the hurdles,” Canby said. 

In the case of the Portageville Bridge, Norfolk Southern officials said during the panel that the state was instrumental in helping secure federal environmental approvals for the project. Canby said railroads aren’t used to navigating the application process and several attendees were interested to learn the state was able to take on that task.

And the partnership was also beneficial to New York, which got another competitive route to the Midwest for its shippers, said Canby, who serves on InTransition’s editorial board. 

“That was a really symbiotic relationship there,” she said of the partnership.

The Portageville Bridge was built by the former Erie Railroad in 1875 and Norfolk Southern acquired it from Conrail in 1999 along with the Southern Tier Route, which runs from Suffern to Buffalo. The new single-track bridge, which will be completed in about three years, will be 900 feet long. As part of the project, Norfolk Southern is building 1,200 feet of new track to connect the new bridge with the existing line. 

Through the public/private partnership, NYSDOT contributed $3 million in design costs and $2.5 million toward construction. The Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council awarded a $2 million grant and another $10 million will come from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Norfolk Southern is paying the remainder of the costs.

“The Portageville Bridge project is a great example of building better infrastructure through partnerships between governments at the local, state, and federal level and the private sector,” said Michael Canavan, FHWA New York Division chief operating officer, in a statement for the project’s October groundbreaking. “New York now has a bridge across the Genesee River that will move long distance freight more efficiently by rail while protecting the beautiful Letchworth State Park for the good of residents, neighbors, and visitors.”

OneRail has been using the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’(AASHTO) regional meetings to highlight partnership projects like the Portageville Bridge. In 2015, the group organized panels in every AASHTO region and attended a Council of State Governments regional meeting. And Canby believes this is just the beginning. She hopes to take these discussions to different groups – more state lawmakers and even economic development officials – to help everyone better understand the benefits of partnering on rail projects.

At the Northeast Association of State Transportation Officials meeting, where Norfolk Southern and NYSDOT highlighted the Portageville Bridge project, the railway also participated in a panel discussion with officials from the Port of Baltimore to showcase a project to expand on-dock capacity at the port and upgrade key Norfolk Southern bridges to improve the flow of cargo in that region. The bridge improvements, and increased rail clearance, were needed to support modern heavy-duty 6-axel locomotives. 

The need to upgrade bridges to eliminate points where these heavier trains are unable to cross older spans is a nationwide issue that is being addressed in different ways. In New Jersey, the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, whose region includes one of the largest ports in the country, created the Freight Rail Industrial Opportunity Corridors Program, a planning study that will establish a framework for identifying and addressing infrastructure in the region that cannot accommodate national standard rail freight cars.

State Funding Sources

One of the things Canby has tried to highlight through OneRail’s panels is the need for states to dedicate funding to rail infrastructure projects.

New Jersey has a Rail Freight Assistance Program, which aims to make freight rail service more accessible to businesses. In 2015, the program distributed $20 million in grants to nine projects, which include rehabilitating shortline track in Salem County, enhancing rail service at the South Jersey Port Corporation’s Marine Terminals, and replacing New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway Corp. and Conrail bridges.

California and Oregon also have dedicated funding for such projects, something that was highlighted at the Western Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials meeting in Idaho in June.

Copright 2016 California Department of Transportation, all rights reserved
Union Pacific anad BNSF Railway partnered with the California Department of Transportation to build an overpass to eliminate a major chokepoint alongside Interstate 10 in Colton.

Representatives from Union Pacific, Oregon Department of Transportation and California Department of Transportation (CADOT) participated in the discussion, which looked at the expansion of Union Pacific’s Hinkle Yard in Oregon and the creation of a flyover at Colton Crossing in San Bernardino County, California. 

In Oregon, Union Pacific applied for and received a $3.7 million grant to build a staging track near its main line in Hinkle Yard, which allows the railway to hold a train intact while awaiting space at the Port of Portland. The project increased mainline capacity, which addressed the growing demand and volume in the area. The additional track decreased in the amount of time cars wait at the terminal, from an average 4.2 hours in 2008 to 2.7 hours in 2011.
The Colton Crossing project in California was needed to separate a major chokepoint where an east-west Union Pacific line crossed a north-south BNSF Railway line alongside Interstate 10. The highway was already carrying a large amount of truck traffic and there was no way to expand capacity. At the same time, more than 110 trains were using the at-grade crossing each day, causing significant congestion on the main lines.

The CADOT partnered with both railways, San Bernardino Associated Governments and the City of Colton to build a 1.4-mile-long overpass to carry the Union Pacific line over the BNSF Railway line. The project was expected to take several years to complete and was slated to cost $202 million, but thanks to innovations in construction methods and competitive bidding, it was finished early and cost only $93 million. The state estimated that the improvements would result in $241 million in travel time savings and a 34,000-ton reduction in greenhouse gas emissions annually. California allocated $41 million in transportation bonds to the project as well as $34 million in federal stimulus funds, with the railways picking up the remainder of the cost.

Economic Development Opportunities

In addition to highlighting rail line improvements, OneRail is also working to bring attention to opportunities for economic development. At the Mid Atlantic Association of State Transportation Officials meeting in Kansas City in August, state and local officials, railway representatives and developers joined together to present a panel on the launch of Logistics Park Kansas City, a BNSF project in Edgerton, Kansas.

The development is located on the BNSF main line, which runs from Los Angeles to Chicago. The railway wanted to create the intermodal facility to meet demands for smarter shipping. The 440-acre site includes 64,000 feet of strip tracks and 4,300 container parking spaces. Cranes are used to reduce congestion and eliminate emissions. The site can accommodate 500,000 lifts per year and there are plans to expand the facility.  

In order to make the site successful, Canby said BNSF had to work with local and state officials to create access to the property. Edgerton provided nearly $80 million in local, state and federal funding for roadway infrastructure, including a new interchange to provide access to Interstate 35.

Canby said Logistics Park is a great example of a project where the state and local government realized the benefit of contributing to a private development project.

“They see the jobs that come with a facility like that,” she said. 

The development has become a destination that not only created railroad jobs, but attracted several businesses that are supported by freight. Those business and jobs translate into tax dollars and economic growth for the state and municipality, Canby said.

The site houses Kubota Tractor Corp.’s primary parts and goods distribution facility in North America; LPKC, a turf care product manufacturer; Demdaco, a household gift and decorative items importer; Flexsteel, a furniture manufacturer; Smart Warehousing, a fulfillment services and warehousing company; and DeLong Grain, which provides products and services to the farming industry. And North Point Development continues to build warehouse space at the site.

“It is very much a partnership in that the public is paying for the public benefit and the railroads are paying for their private benefit,” Canby said. 

While state transportation departments and their consultants have been OneRail’s primary audience, Canby hopes to broaden the conversations going forward. OneRail attended the Council of State Governments’ northeast regional meeting last year to highlight the need to invest in passenger rail and she hopes to hold panels in other regions this year. She’d also like to start organizing more discussions that highlight economic development projects like Logistics Park Kansas City.

“A lot of the freight stuff is driven not just by the transportation folks in the state, but also by the economic development people,” she said. “That’s another area where I think we could do some interesting work as well. We just haven’t gotten there yet.”

Melissa Hayes is the managing editor of InTransition Magazine.