BLOUNTVILLE - Richard Venable and other economic development officials from Knoxville and Chattanooga eastward are looking for 200 to 300 acres of relatively flat land.
The catch, however, is the proposed intermodal freight terminal sites must be near the Norfolk Southern Corp. railroad tracks, although an industrial park the economic development group is about to buy in eastern Sullivan County could fit the bill.
Wherever it is located - with possibilities including Knoxville, Chattanooga, Morristown and the Tri-Cities - would become a major freight stop along an improved 1,400-mile rail corridor from New Orleans to New Jersey.
The goal of the NETWORKS - Sullivan Partnership is to put together a proposal for one of the new freight terminals the railroad is proposing. The other terminal is to be in Maryland.
Both terminals are part of its planned $2 billion Crescent Corridor program designed to help relieve current and future truck traffic on the interstate highway system.
Venable, chief executive officer of NETWORKS, said he and Jack Lawson, director of economic development for NETWORKS, will be putting together a small working committee to look at prospective sites for a terminal.
Venable said the best bet locally is land between Bristol, Tenn., and the Bluff City/Piney Flats area in eastern Sullivan County.
NETWORKS is a joint economic development effort of Sullivan County, Kingsport, Bristol, Tenn., and Bluff City.
Venable said his understanding is the land doesn't have to adjoin the existing rails but must be within a relatively short distance of the rail line and interstate access.
The Knoxville News-Sentinel Thursday reported that a railroad official told Knoxville Chamber of Commerce Director of Economic Developer Doug Lawyer the site would be 200 to 300 acres, but Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman said Friday he couldn't confirm that.
"It would pretty much have to be on a major line," Chapman said. "I cannot confirm the acreage figure that has been reported in the media. We are currently analyzing projected traffic data and working to develop concept plans for the various terminals anticipated for the Crescent Corridor. It's too soon to get specific about what size terminal we will need in a given location."
Still, Venable said he believes 200 to 300 acres is a reasonable number and that one local prospect could be the proposed 223-acre Partnership Park 2 land that NETWORKS plans to buy next month for $3.7 million, including $400,000 slated for infrastructure improvements.
"The Norfolk Southern track runs right beside Partnership Park 2. I haven't looked at a topography map, but it's right next to there," Lawson said.
It's also close to State Route 394, which connects to U.S. Highway 11-E in an interchange and, eventually, to Interstate 81 at Exit 69 in Blountville.
"Jack just finished putting together a map of the railroad with our tax parcels in Sullivan County," Venable said. "Early next week, we're going to get together a group of about five people."
That group is to include Venable, Lawson, Kingsport Alderman Ken Marsh and former Bristol, Tenn., Mayor John Gaines.
Slated to start in 2008 and end in 2013, the Crescent Corridor project is to upgrade the rail line - with help from Virginia, Tennessee and other states along the way. Railroad officials have said this would help reduce congestion on interstates, keeping an estimated 1 million trucks a year off them, as well as help with clean air and conserving fuel.
Although the project gets its name from the old Southern Crescent passenger line, Chapman said the project is driven solely by projected freight demands.
Virginia already has committed $40 million to the project, an outgrowth of work to keep traffic congestion down on the Interstate 81 corridor.
Chapman, based at the company's Norfolk headquarters, said Friday the railroad likely will do things like double tracking; placing more and longer sidetracks to allow trains to pass one another; and improving road crossing signals.
He said Tennessee and the other states - Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey - will be approached in coming months about helping out with the project.
Chapman also said the railroad is working with J.B. Hunt and other trucking companies to project more data on benefits of the plan, which would include more short and medium hauls by trains and local short hauls to and from the intermodal terminals.
"Norfolk Southern would put up an amount that we determine would give us a sufficient amount of to get a good return on investment," Chapman said.
Venable said anyone interested in providing input on the Sullivan County proposal can contact NETWORKS at 279-7681 or at email@example.com.