At first, it was only going to be a single rail line.
Local real estate agent Ryan Greene was helping Texas-based developer USA Rail Terminals find a suitable location for a rail spur. USA Rail has a client in Clinton that wanted a better way to ship its commodity into Texas.
“We started all the way down in Addis and worked our way north on potential properties, of which there were only a couple or three,” says Steve Roth, executive vice president of USA Rail. They used an agent to be discreet, in hopes that the owner of a suitable sugar cane field wouldn’t jack up the asking price after discovering the intended purpose.
But in the course of doing its research and talking to its contacts and to railroad customers in the region, Roth says his company discovered a “substantial need” for an entirely new rail terminal in the area.
“It was their vision of what could be here and their contacts in the industry ,” Greene says.
After a search of about 18 months, USA Rail bought a 155-acre parcel just west of La. 1 between La. 415 and La. 986 in Port Allen. As envisioned, the facility will tie into an existing Union Pacific rail line and have the capacity to store more than 1,200 rail cars next door to what organizers hope will be a thriving industrial park.
The land deal closed late last December, and Roth says he’s shooting for late July or early August to complete the first of the three phases of the project. Phase one will require about $14.5 million of the anticipated $80 million investment.
A FORMER PLANTATION
On a typical mid-May Louisiana morning, when it’s already warm and humid but not quite full-on summer, a worker with a GPS-equipped bulldozer was among those preparing the land to the specifications set by USA Rail engineers.
Roth pointed proudly to a stack of steel railroad ties. While many rails have less-expensive wood ties, he says, using steel saves trees and offers greater longevity.
The Port Allen Rail Terminal will be unique in the greater Baton Rouge area, officials say, because of its ability to accept a “unit train.” Say you have a few rail cars that you need to get to Pennsylvania. Much like sending a package by mail at the standard rate, your shipment may have to go through several stops as other products are dropped off. In railroad shipping, this is known as “manifest freight.”
But if you have 100 cars with the same product and destination, the railroad will dedicate engines and a crew to take your unit train from point A to point B nonstop, sort of like next-day delivery of a mailed package. This approach simplifies the logistics for everyone involved.
And to build a facility capable of dealing with unit trains, you need an enormous stretch of land.
“You’re talking seven or eight thousand feet of rail just to land the train,” Roth says. “If you parked a 7,000-foot train out on this main line, you would be blocking every intersection all the way past the Port of Greater Baton Rouge.”
And of course, you don’t just want lots of land. You want access to infrastructure, like existing rail lines, highways and river transportation.
“Finding a parcel like this that has the depth to receive modern-length unit trains is extremely difficult, which makes this site extremely rare,” Roth adds.
The Port Allen Rail Terminal site used to be part of Poplar Grove Plantation. Parcels alongside the site, which today are sugar cane fields, have been rezoned for industrial use and potentially could be home to several companies that would like to be next to a major rail terminal.
In fact, the terminal’s first neighbor already has been announced. Thermaldyne, founded in Georgia, says it will spend $19 million to create 45 direct jobs and build its facility on 25 acres. The company says it remediates industrial waste that otherwise might end up in a landfill, resulting in byproducts such as clean oil and biodegradable solids that can be repurposed.
It only takes a dozen or so people to run a rail yard, although eventually the Port Allen Rail Terminal is expected to employ 45 people. From an economic development perspective, the terminal’s potential as a shipping hub and industrial park anchor probably is more significant than the number of direct jobs it will provide. Baton Rouge Area Chamber President and CEO Adam Knapp calls the project a “double win” for the region that will provide employment and spur further development.
The Port Allen Rail Terminal project at a glance
- Construction started in January
- About 56 acres
- About 20,000 linear feet of rail
- Ability to accommodate two full-unit trains of 100 cars at once
- Construction started in late February
- About 27 acres
- An additional 25,000 linear feet of rail
- Meant to serve “large existing customers” in East and West Baton Rouge parishes
- About 72 acres
- Will not be built until needed by additional customers
SOURCE: Steve Roth, USA Rail Terminals