WAIA ‘given a pass to move seven steps forward’ as it signs memorandum of understanding on project with Union Pacific, Ports America

Two of the nation’s largest players in the transportation arena — Union Pacific Railroad and Ports America — are interested in Van Buren for an inland intermodal facility.

To study the potential of constructing a new multimodal facility in Van Buren as a private-public partnership with the Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority, the group of local county leaders signed an exclusive memorandum of understanding Monday with the two companies.

John Vickerman of Vickerman & Associates, the Virginia-based consulting firm contracted by WAIA last year to search out expressions of interest, likened the development to being “given a pass to move seven steps forward.”

“In my 35 years of doing this, I’ve seldom had the opportunity to do this,” Vickerman said before telling the board the names of the companies that expressed interest.

Vickerman went on to explain that as part of his firm’s $200,000 contract, they were asked to answer two strategic questions: Is the market assessment and cargo market forecast sufficient to sustain a reasonable inland intermodal port plan? And is there a likelihood of a WAIA advertisement, or request for expression of interest, reasonably qualified inland intermodal port development interest.” The answer to both of those were “absolutely yes,” Vickerman said.

“Before the study and analysis was even completed, two top-notch nationally recognized developer entities approached me and the WAIA and said, ‘We’re interested,'" Vickerman said.

Vickerman noted that the companies would also be doing their own feasibility study. Ports America is the largest U.S. container intermodal operator in North America, operating in 80 ports, and three times larger than any other entity in its field, he added. Union Pacific is the largest Class I railroad, with annual revenue of about $22 billion.

“There’s an emerging battleground … the Midwest,” Vickerman said. “Every single port of the 398 ports in North America is competing in this battleground. Not only the agriculture products, but the distribution of those products from Chicago and the like that form this battleground. You are on the outskirts and nicely positioned from a battleground perspective.”

Mat Pitsch, executive director of the WAIA, said there is no certainty of exactly what the companies will want to build, but that they would know more after the six-month time frame agreement to study the prospects. Vickerman alluded to the likelihood of the facility beginning as a "truck to rail" operation and then possibly expanding into an operation that takes more advantage of the Arkansas River.

Considering federal mandates under the National Environmental Policy Act, Vickerman said the earliest something could be built would be in the four- to five-year time frame. The land to be studied is "within the Crawford County Levee near the Class I railway operated by Union Pacific and Kansas City Southern railroads, Interstate 540 and Interstate 40."