More than $19.6 million in rail service expansions are proposed for the Port of Greater Baton Rouge.
The proposal is set for a vote Thursday by members of the Greater Baton Rouge Port Commission.
On the table is more than $7 million for installation of interchange tracks. The addition would enable the Port Allen facility to smooth arrivals of 40- to 50-car trains by avoiding switching delays.
Another $12.6 million would build a chambering yard that would enable receipt of unit trains of as many as 110 cars in one continuous 10-mile-per-hour process.
Both projects would be welcomed by port tenants Louis Dreyfus Commodities and Drax Biomass.
Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain likes the chambering yard project enough to dedicate $1 million of his budget to that port improvement. Union Pacific Railroad, which serves the port and its tenants, has offered to kick in $1 million. Another $2.2 million has been requested from the state’s capital outlay budget. Dreyfus and Drax are considering advance payment of $4.4 million of their rents to get the yard project rolling.
Union Pacific also has offered to pay all but $50,000 of the $7 million needed for the interchange tracks. The last $50,000 would be funded from the port budget.
If agreement is reached on all those moves, the port’s share of the chambering yard costs this year would be $4 million.
After more than a year of negotiations, though, there remains some bickering over the impact of long trains on area traffic and neighborhoods.
Area businessman Rawlston “Bubba” Phillips told port commissioners Thursday that an increase in train traffic and length could endanger people living in neighborhoods that have only one way in and one way out.
“That’s our fault,” Phillips said of development decisions that limited access to those neighborhoods.
Phillips added, however, that long trains blocking such exit points for 15 minutes at a time could endanger residents by blocking their access to medical, fire or law enforcement services.
He urged port and Union Pacific officials to find a way to avoid daytime train arrivals and departures.
“Please give us some relief,” Phillips said. “Don’t lock us in.”
Union Pacific officials said they cannot guarantee that some daytime train traffic will never be necessary but pledged to make nighttime arrivals and departures their goal.
“The most important thing you can do is build this infrastructure,” said Drew Tessier, a Union Pacific spokesman.
Tyson Moeller, also representing Union Pacific, said Drax will begin receiving two 45-car trains, loaded with wood pellets, each week beginning in February. Moeller added Drax would prefer to receive one 80-car train per week.
After more than a year of discussions, however, no work has begun on either of the rail-service expansions and improvements, Moeller said.
Dreyfus’ first long unit trains of soybeans and other agricultural products will begin arriving in September 2016, Moeller added.
“This (rail) project will take about a year and a half, in my estimation,” Moeller said. If the Port Commission approves the project next week, he said, Union Pacific will start spending its $7 million on the interchange tracks.
Bruce Chapin, a Dreyfus vice president from Kansas City, Missouri, wrote the commission, saying 60 percent of its agricultural rail shipments to Port Allen are likely to occur from October to January each year. That could mean as many as 90 shipments during that period.
Because Dreyfus’ Port Allen facility operates 24-7, Chapin added, the company will be able to minimize traffic congestion.
Using barge shipments, “This past year, we put 4 million tons through here,” Chapin said at a Thursday port committee meeting.
Drax Senior Vice President Ken Budreau said that in previous discussions, port officials agreed to build a chambering yard.
“We expect it to be done,” Budreau said.
Budreau wrote the commission earlier that Drax will try to bring trains into the port during off-peak hours as often as possible.
Drax plants in Beekman, Louisiana, and Gloster, Mississippi, will be shipping massive loads of wood pellets to Port Allen for eventual delivery as fuel to customers in Europe, Budreau noted.
At this week’s meeting, Drax received vocal support from state Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe.
Walsworth said Morehouse Parish, the area that includes Drax’s pellet plant, suffered several years ago after a paper mill shut down.
Now Drax has agreed to buy about 67 percent of the volume of wood the paper mill formerly purchased, Walsworth said.
“This is about state economic development,” Walsworth continued. “If you don’t serve Drax and Dreyfus, they’re gone.”
Added Walsworth: “Ag (agriculture) pays the checks to the people of Louisiana. It is ag that makes this state run.”
Pleading with commissioners, Walsworth said: “You’ve got a resource here. Please keep it going.”
Strain told commissioners neither his department nor the Legislature can send them state funds before construction begins.
“Until the project starts, the (state) money doesn’t move,” Strain added.
“You need to vote,” Strain said. “Up or down. Let’s move forward.”
The commission is scheduled to decide the issue at a 5 p.m. Thursday meeting.