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PARADE Magazine
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 1, 2006
HOME | NEWS | FORUMS | ARCHIVES | OBITUARIES | WEATHER

An aerial photograph of the Decatur riverfront shows three reasons Decatur is a transportation hub: Trucks on Alabama 20, barge traffic on the Tennessee River and the railroad bridge across the river.
DAILY Photo by Emily Saunders
An aerial photograph of the Decatur riverfront shows three reasons Decatur is a transportation hub: Trucks on Alabama 20, barge traffic on the Tennessee River and the railroad bridge across the river.

River, rails,
roads and air

Transport hub drives Decatur’s economy

By Eric Fleischauer
DAILY Business Writer

eric@decaturdaily.com · 340-2435

Sunlight glints off the Tennessee River, and a cooling breeze tousles E.C. Hall's hair as he sits on the patio.

It requires a second look to realize that, in the midst of this tranquility, Hall is witness to a burgeoning transportation hub that is the engine of Decatur's economy.

Hall, bound to a wheelchair, but hopefully not for long, is outside his suite at Riverside Senior Living, across from Rhodes Ferry Park. He sits in the bull's-eye of a transportation dartboard that few cities in the world can match.

Look north 50 yards. Heat boils from Norfolk Southern's east-west rail line, distorting the view. Glance to the west and see a 100-car train crossing the bridge that supports 25 such trains a day on CSX's major north-south route across the now-placid river.

Listen closely and you'll hear the incessant rumble of heavily laden trucks, straining under loads to and from Decatur's riverfront industries. Most of the truckers' journeys took them over Interstate 65, a couple of miles to the east and handling 36,000 vehicles a day. Some come from the intermodal facility at Huntsville International Airport, 15 miles to the east, carrying products that arrived by ship in Savannah and in Huntsville by rail. Most intermodal shipments originate in China.

When the flight paths are right, Hall can see the airplanes, many carrying cargo, from the busiest regional airport in the state, Athens-Decatur Pryor Field Regional Airport.

The combination of interstate access, excellent rail service and air capability are unusual among American cities, but hardly unique. Follow Hall's eyes, though, and see the final piece of the puzzle. A tugboat chugs east, pushing its two barges ahead.

About 2,600 barges float 4 million tons of product into and through Decatur every year. What's the big deal, given the ready availability of trains and trucks to bring raw materials to Decatur's always-hungry industries? Rick Terry, vice president of marketing of Decatur Transit's Port of Decatur, explains.

The contents of one average barge would fill 15 rail cars. It would fill 60 freight trucks.

Understanding the importance of Decatur's transportation crossroads is not simply a matter of multiplying by four, the number of transportation modes it offers, Terry explained. The timely supply of raw materials is everything to industry, and the risk of relying upon a single mode of transportation is great.

Interstate? A truck can hit an overpass in Birmingham, closing it for weeks.

Rail? A derailment can do the same.

River? Just look at the hiatus on barge traffic since Wilson Lock in Florence was damaged, and the risks are clear.

A major disaster, like Hurricane Katrina, can knock out both barge and rail traffic.

"If you're limited to just truck or just rail or just barge, then if something happens to your transportation mode, you're cut off," Terry said. "You've got to be able to get goods other ways."

Hall, 77, glares at his wheelchair. Mobility is everything to him, and a battery-operated wheelchair doesn't do it. He's a licensed pilot. He's licensed to operate boats up to 100 tons. He had hoped to get a tugboat license before illness turned his legs to noodles. He watches the transport around him and wants to be a part of it.

Barge access

Barge access, which sets Decatur apart from most cities, has been particularly important to the economy. The companies relying upon barge access include most of Decatur's largest employers: Nucor, 3M, Boeing, Daikin America, Goodyear, General Electric, Wolverine Tube, Solutia, Toray, Nova Chemicals — and the list goes on. At least 30 Decatur-area industries rely on barges to bring them raw materials, and they are among the biggest and highest-paying employers in the area.

In the absence of other transportation, barges would be well nigh useless. A shipment of fertilizer must not just get to Decatur. It must get to a distributor and, ultimately, a farm. Here again, Decatur's multiple transportation modes are invaluable.

"A lot of the raw materials come in on the barge, and some of the finished products go out on the barge," explained Lynn Fowler, former Decatur mayor and current chairman of the Decatur-Morgan County Economic Development Association. "But once that inventory is built up, it's got to be disbursed to other areas.

"Then you're dependent on rail and interstate and the intermodal facility. Without the access to transportation, we could not be as successful as we are."

Indeed, said Terry, one of the few problems with Decatur's barge traffic is that it is, for the most part, one-way. Because raw materials come in by barge, and the less bulky finished products tend to go out by rail or truck, Decatur industry gets stuck with the cost not just of receiving the raw materials, but of returning the empty barge.

Thousands of trucks

That's bad for the Bunge Corp. plant and its like, but not necessarily for Decatur. By way of Decatur Transit, Kinder Morgan or Nucor, most of that finished product goes out by truck. Lots of trucks. About 2,510 trucks with three axles or more on Alabama 20, along the river, per day, according to the Alabama Department of Transportation. The Hudson Memorial Bridge gets 2,100 heavy trucks a day. I-565, just east of I-65, feels the weight of 3,600 heavy trucks a day.

And don't forget rail, cheaper than truck but more expensive than barge. Much of the raw material feeding Decatur industry comes in by rail, and much passes through to places north, south, east and west. CSX's north-south route handled 29,905 loaded rail cars a year in 2005. Norfolk Southern's east-west route handles about 25 trains a day. Norfolk Southern does not break it down by rail cars, but that's about 2,600 rail cars a year.

Pryor Field

In the midst of this freight Mecca, don't forget Pryor Field. It handles about 45,000 takeoffs and landings a year. It sees about two large freighter planes a day, carrying cargo to such companies as Delphi, Federal-Mogul, Steelcase and Goodyear. On a busy month, said Clay Smith, president of Decatur-Athens Aero Service, he can upload and offload up to 250,000 pounds of cargo a month.

When Pryor Field receives an instrument landing system, already promised by the Federal Aviation Administration, the numbers will go much higher, especially given its 6,100-foot runway.

Hall, sitting on the patio, shakes his head.

"It amazes me how much goes through Decatur. I see trains and barges and trucks and planes and even cruise boats. Most in Decatur don't know the extent of it."

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