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COLUMBUS, OH-The March 3 opening of Phase I of Norfolk Southern Corp.’s 250-acre Rickenbacker Intermodal terminal further strengthens the Ohio state capital’s position as one of the nation’s premier distribution centers. Located in the 1,300-acre Rickenbacker Global Logistics Park (RGLP) surrounding Rickenbacker International Airport, the $68.5 million project is the Norfolk, VA-based railroad company’s fifth intermodal facility in the state and second in the greater Columbus market.

The opening coincides with completion of the first building in RGLP’s truck-to-rail transfer section, a 407,000-sf facility for Hyperlogistics Group Inc. The park is divided into several sections on either side of the airport. “The intermodal yard will drive development in this part of Columbus for the next 15 years and maybe beyond. It is really a big part of the puzzle,” says Curt Berlin, a broker with NAI Ohio Equities LLC in Columbus who represented Hyper Logistics in negotiations for its property.

Berlin tells GlobeSt.com the terminal’s importance will be magnified by the railroad’s anticipated late 2009 completion of track improvements that will allow double-stacking of containers for transport from the Port of Norfolk to Columbus and on to Chicago. At present, tunnel heights and insufficiently reinforced overpasses limit train loads to single-decking. The railroad expects the doubling of capacity to significantly reduce both the cost and time of overland shipping. The reductions will help Norfolk compete with West Coast ports for Asian imports by compensating for the additional time and expense to ship goods through the Panama Canal to the East Coast.

Distributors that locate near the terminal can also save additional time at their end. According to Hyperlogistics co-founder Geoff Manack, relocating his business near the terminal will enable it to ship customers’ products within 72 hours of their arrival in port, shaving a full day off the previous turnaround time. The terminal’s first phase adds about 100,000 container transfers a year to Norfolk Southern’s regional capacity. Future expansion could lift the total to 400,000 transfers annually. According to Lou Jannazo, chief of project development for the Ohio Rail Development Commission, the state’s existing intermodal terminals are at capacity, primarily because it costs $50 to $150 less to ship a container by rail than by truck, with the differential increasing with the cost of gas.

Despite the claimed advantages of intermodal and apparent need for greater capacity, RGLP has been slow to take off. Built from a former Air Force base, the park has several million sf of existing space left by the military, much of it still available. But Jim Clark, senior vice president of Columbus operations for Indianapolis-based Duke Realty Corp., says activity has been picking up. In addition to the Hyperlogistics deal, Whirlpool Corp. recently signed for 632,000 sf, taking the project’s last available existing modern spec space.

Duke is developing the logistics park in concert with the Columbus Regional Airport Authority and the locally based Capitol Square Ltd. Clark speculates that prospective tenants and buyers have been waiting for the terminal to open and track improvements to be made before jumping in for new projects. But he has no doubt need will eventually overcome resistance as companies recognize the value of locating near the intermodal terminal.

Another railroad company, CSX Corp. of Jacksonville, FL, appears to agree. It plans to build a $113 million terminal a few miles north in Ovetz, OH that could handle up to 500,000 container transfers annually. That project, combined with additional proposed track improvements by both CSX and Norfolk Southern, would give Columbus more reliable links to other East Coast ports, including those in New Jersey.

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