WAYNE — Wayne County commissioners say they have identified an agency interested in operating the Heartland Intermodal Gateway facility, which has struggled to gain much of a foothold in the freight transfer business since it opened four years ago.
The Wayne County Commission held a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the potential suitor for the intermodal facility in Prichard, West Virginia.
The West Virginia Public Port Authority board, during a meeting earlier this month, gave Wayne County officials until Aug. 30 to submit proposals to save the $32 million Heartland Intermodal Gateway facility from being sold.
According to Commissioner Jeff Maddox, the Port of Virginia (PVA) has expressed significant interest in leasing the facility but have no interest in buying it outright.
“Had we not been at that [earlier] meeting, I’m sure they would have gone ahead with selling it. At least that gave us some time to get our ducks in a row,” Maddox said following the Aug. 6 meeting. “We swung them. We really did.”
He said representatives from the Port Authority of Virginia are working on a final draft of a proposal to lease the Prichard facility, which was built to allow transfer of shipments between rail and trucks and was billed as a way to generate jobs in the Prichard area. If the proposal is accepted, it would be the first facility outside the state of Virginia to be operated by the PVA.
The company owns, operates or leases five marine terminals, all on the harbor of Hampton Roads: the Norfolk International Terminals (NIT) at Norfolk, Portsmouth Marine Terminal (PMT) at Portsmouth, Newport News Marine Terminal (NNMT) at Newport News, Virginia International Gateway (VIG) at Portsmouth, and one intermodal container transfer facility (dry port), the Virginia Inland Port in Front Royal, Virginia. According to the PVA’s website, about 37% of all cargo handled by the company arrives or departs by rail.
Commissioners agreed that the Prichard facility’s long-term goal should still be in play when it comes to deciding its future, a motive of the state that has been questioned by Wayne officials.
If it sells to the current operators, Commissioner Kenneth Adkins said he doesn’t think the facility will ever reach its full potential.
“If it is not operated as an intermodal facility, then Wayne County will never realize the potential it was intended for here with the warehousing industry that we hoped would follow the construction of that intermodal facility,” said Adkins.
Current operations in Prichard are reportedly being handled by Appalachian Railcar Services, a company specializing in freight and tank car maintenance, repair, storage, switching and track repair. Before leaving his position in June, former West Virginia Public Port Authority Director Neal Vance told The Herald-Dispatch that he approached the private company about operating it on a long-term lease at their cost.
Maddox is hoping to see the Port of Virginia step in and flip the conversation from a failing facility to a flourishing one.
“If they don’t go in, I think we’re dogged,” said Maddox, “but I think they’re in.”
He recalled a conversation with Port of Virginia CEO and Executive Director John Reinhart, who, according to Maddox, said the Prichard facility reminded him a lot of the Richmond Marine Terminal.
It was reportedly struggling to bring in business like the Prichard facility, but the port authority has made investments to expand and improve a barge service along the James River since its takeover. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in April that shipment volumes have been growing since 2014 and shipments by barge are projected to exceed 34,200 containers this fiscal year and 41,200 in the next fiscal year.
“Richmond Marine Terminal is just a real success story,” Reinhart said in an interview with the publication.
PVA signed a five-year lease with the city of Richmond to operate the facility in late 2010. It now operates the terminal under a 40-year lease.
The Heartland facility sits on 100 acres of land donated by Norfolk Southern Railway and private property owners along the banks of the Big Sandy River in Prichard. The purpose of the facility is to provide businesses with a truck-to-rail transfer facility along the 530-mile Heartland Corridor that runs from the Port of Virginia in Hampton Roads, Virginia, through West Virginia to Chicago.
West Virginia Transportation Secretary Byrd White said Prichard had only 579 lifts of containers off railcars to trucks at $30 a lift in the 2019 fiscal year, totaling $17,370 in income — but the terminal had $522,000 in expenses for a loss of about half a million dollars.
Joe Harris, spokesperson for the Port of Virginia, confirmed that the company is “exploring the opportunity” to lease the Heartland Intermodal Gateway but further explained that no official proposal or documents had been filed with the West Virginia Department of Transportation.
“What ends up happening at the end of the day, I don’t know, but we don’t need to lose our long-term vision over some temporary pains because of poor management,” said Maddox.
All proposals, which are required to be submitted electronically to DOT General Counsel Nathaniel K. Tawney by 4 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30, will be shared with the PPA Board of Directors and may be discussed or requested to be presented at a public meeting of the board.
A follow-up meeting to the Aug. 6 discussion is supposed to occur during the first week of September, but a date and time have not yet been released. Public meetings require a public notice to be released five business days prior to the meeting date.