Port of Walla Walla officials plan to make $2.7 million in rail improvements at its Dodd Road Business Park for increased Railex train traffic.
The rail improvements, mostly covered by state funding, will extend existing rail to the recently opened Railex Wine Services and create parallel tracks to help the company stack and store the additional produce rail cars, said Jim Kuntz, the port's executive director.
Currently, two trains a week transport Eastern Washington produce from Wallula to New York, he said. That will double to four a week once Railex opens a new distribution center in Jacksonville, Fla.
"The distribution center should be completed in May or June of 2014," said Jim Kleist, senior vice president of West Coast operations for Railex. "The processors we're working with in Washington, Oregon and parts of Idaho are already supplying the Northeast with product and, with this new facility, they'll be doing the same to the Southeast just as soon as the distribution center opens."
One train can transport about 8 million pounds of produce in refrigerated, temperature-controlled freight cars, Kuntz said.
The additional traffic has a huge potential impact for all of Eastern Washington, as well as the entire state, Kuntz said.
Adding the trains to Jacksonville will improve the company's reach on the East Coast, where 60 percent of the U.S. population lives, officials have said.
"We are bringing in apples from Yakima and Wenatchee, and we are getting potatoes throughout the Basin," Kuntz said. "Lots of onions from the Columbia Basin are coming our way."
Adding the additional distribution center in Jacksonville will double the volume of Railex's East Coast location as well as doubling the volume of the company's Washington and California locations, Kleist said.
"And doubling the volume out of Washington means we'll need to double the number of employees there too," Kleist said.
The new distribution center is a $100 million investment for Railex if you factor in the additional rail cars, the land and the building. That's a lot of commitment, said Kleist. The $20 million Railex Wine Services opened at the Dodd Road Business Park off of Highway 12 in February.
"It's a start up and they're always a heck of a lot of work. But this one is going well. Here it is October, eight months into it, and we're starting a very busy fourth quarter," Kleist said.
The facility holds 5 million cases of wine and is at 70 percent capacity.
That's a lot of wine, the majority from Ste. Michelle, which will be moving into the Southeast as well as the Northeast, once the new Jacksonville distribution center is completed, Kleist said.
Railex already had a 215,000-square-foot transload facility in the business park, where the produce is loaded and transported from.
Construction on the expanded rail to benefit both Railex facilities will start next year, Kuntz said. The project has not yet been put out to bid.
The port will use $1.3 million from the state Legislature, a $400,000 grant from the state Community Economic Revitalization Board, and a $700,000 grant and a $250,000 low-interest loan from the Washington State Department of Transportation's freight rail assistance account to pay for the project, Kuntz said.
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