Experts say rail lines to increase business

By Garthia Elena Burnett/The Commercial Dispatch

COLUMBUS — Restoration of the Columbus and Greenville Railway line could have far-reaching and long-lasting results, not just for the areas it touches directly but also for the entire nation.

“A lot of freight movers are trying to switch from truck to rail,” said Jody Holland, postdoctoral associate at Mississippi State University’s Geosystems Research Institute.

And should a natural disaster or national emergency call for rerouting the rail system, the C&G corridor would be a natural alternative.

Holland recently presented the findings of a study looking at the potential of reopening the railway at the Mississippi Association of Political Science’s annual convention, held at Mississippi University for Women.

The study looked at three different aspects of reopening the rail, which closed 10 years ago because of poor conditions: transportation cost benefits, work force and economic impact, focusing on Washington, Sunflower, Leflore, Carroll, Montgomery, Webster, Oktibbeha, Clay and Lowndes counties.

Researchers conducted interviews in the nine counties to find out how they would use the rail if it were restored.

“Businesses want choices,” Holland said. “It hinders industrial development because industry won’t move in because they need (the rail).”

Fifty-six businesses were surveyed in throughout the nine counties.

“All nine counties are classified as distressed counties,” Holland said, noting each county reported a decline in production operations, economic development and production jobs.

A simulation showed particular benefits for the grain mills, biofuels, steel and automaker industries.

Holland said Severstal Columbus and its onsite partners and the Toyota plant being built in Blue Springs are businesses with potential to benefit from restoration of the rail line.

“Our farmers and industry who produce those raw materials can’t get it to Atlanta to the refineries,” he said.

Estimates show that, in the steel industry, restoring the rail would create 240 direct jobs, 450 indirect jobs, a $32 million increase in annual personal income and a $2 million increase in yearly state tax collections.

A biofuels company has expressed interest in locating a $53 million facility in Winona, creating 20 direct jobs, 150 indirect jobs, an $8 million increase in annual personal income and $500,000 in yearly state tax collections.

In the steel industry, restoration would create 300 direct jobs , 750 indirect jobs and a $50 million increase in personal income.

The impact predicted for the state as a whole is 2,000 direct jobs, $240 million in personal income, 3,210 indirect jobs and a $15 million increase in yearly state tax collections.

Holland mentioned the possibility of creating a bridge over the Mississippi river and connecting to rail in Arkansas.

The Panama Canal will expand, Sal Nobrega said, noting the rail could offer a corridor to Mexico. The C&G line also could offer some relief to Memphis.

“Memphis is a huge rail hub, but it’s saturated. There’s no room to grow,” said Nobrega, assistant research professor at GRI.

Research shows the rail revitalization project “could be a catalyst for economic development,” Holland said.

The project is estimated to cost $99 million and will have little to no environmental impact.

“The corridor’s already there,” Holland said. “We just need to revitalize it.”

The state Legislature, in April, pledged $15 million in matching funds for the project, but the $15 million is hinged on all other funding being secured.

GRI researchers said the North Central Mississippi Railroad Authority secure the state and federal funding needed to move forward with the project, seeing it as an invaluable investment.

“In the modern transportation system, people forget about rail, but rail is at the center of modern transportation,” Nobrega said.

Cities, he reminded fellow attendees, grew around rail centers connecting trade routes.