Rail site expansion opens local import-export access

A Kansas-based company plans to pick up where Union Pacific Railroad left off and complete an intermodal ramp in Wallula, bringing increased transportation capacity via rail.

The project will open up routes to Northwest docks and as far east as Chicago and beyond through a lease and purchase agreement for the former Railex site.

Future plans by purchaser Tiger Cool Express could include an expansion into additional markets, such as the Interstate 5 corridor and Mexico.

“In 10 years, or maybe sooner, the Tri-Cities could be spoken of as a global logistics hub right there with Rotterdam, Hong Kong and Singapore,” said Ted Prince, chief strategy officer and co-founder of Tiger Cool Express. “You’ve got land, you’ve got labor, you’ve got water, and you’ve got electricity.”

Prince said the state has been asked to build an intermodal ramp in Eastern Washington for decades but concluded it was a project for the private sector.

“We’re the private sector here, and the citizens of the whole Tri-Cities will benefit from this,” he said.

He said this region reminds him of the Inland Empire decades ago but with one key advantage.

“The only difference is with our facility you can run a conveyor belt by rail from the port in and out without putting trucks on I-90 and Snoqualmie Pass, and that not only helps the driving public and reduces noxious emissions, it makes the truck drivers happy. Truck drivers hate the pass,” he said.

Prince also points out deficiencies with other U.S import sites that lack adjacent land to expand on or the reliable infrastructure to operate planned distribution centers for mega retailers like Target and Walmart.

“You know, people have opened 2 million-square-foot facilities then to be told, ‘We’re sorry, there won’t be any electricity there for another year or two.’ ”

He added, “I used to work for an ocean carrier and the Pacific Northwest was a very important geography for us. We used to run barges down the Snake and Columbia rivers for exports of french fries, peas, beans, lentils and hay. It costs more to move the hay from the Tri-Cities to Tacoma than it does from Tacoma to Asia. So, anything we can do to reduce those costs for domestic transportation, it makes that Washington export much more competitive.”

Prince said his industry also solves a lot of the supply chain issues currently faced by exporters.

“If they can actually get a box (shipment container) because often they get a promise of a box, which may not be delivered, which may not make it to the port, which may not make it on the vessel – we can solve all of that by moving it by rail,” he said.

While no purchase price has been disclosed, Tiger first announced plans to acquire the property in 2021 and the lease and purchase agreement includes the former Cold Connect warehouse and property at 627 Railex Road.

The 200,000-square-foot facility shuttered early in the pandemic, citing Covid-related troubles and taking 170 jobs with it.

Now renamed the Tiger Tri-Cities Logistics Center, the building was originally built as part of a public-private partnership with the Port of Walla Walla dedicated in 2006.

The plans to build out the intermodal ramp and purchase the shuttered warehouse have the support of Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Patrick Reay.

“We’re hopeful they’re wildly successful in reestablishing use of a real asset that the public owns and which the port constructed years ago. We’re excited about the prospects. Working alongside them and supporting them is critical to the region,” he said.

Hundreds of millions of pounds of produce are already shipped on the rail line yearly using rail cars. Prince touts the efficiency offered versus the highway system.

“Right now they take an import from Seattle and truck it to the Tri-Cities and then truck it back empty. Then, the hay exporter goes to Tacoma, picks up that empty, trucks it back to the Tri-Cities, and then moves it back loaded. So, you’ve got four moves of 250 miles. With rail, you can then truck the import 12 miles to the distribution center, bring the empty back to us and we’ll hold the empty for the exporter who’s ready and does the same thing. All of a sudden, you’ve taken 1,000 truck miles off the road.”

The industry touts those reduced truck miles as part of its environmental advantage, providing a much lower carbon footprint for shipments, “When it comes to the politics in Washington, this is clearly something the east and the west and the left and the right sides of the aisle agree on because it benefits everybody in the state,” Prince said.

After the 2020 shutdown of the Cold Connect Warehouse, Tiger Express says it leaned on Union Pacific to complete the intermodal ramp but to no avail.

“We tried all our tricks to get them to finish it, and they said, ‘Well, if you feel so strongly about it, why don’t you buy it?’ So, we did,” Prince said.

Permits are already in place for construction on the ramp and $2 million in lift equipment has been delivered from Italy for installation. Work is expected to get underway soon with a media day planned in April to show the progress.

Since it’s not starting from scratch, Tiger expects to finish the job by July.

For all the excitement and promise, the project doesn’t come with immediate restoration of lost jobs or even new jobs.

“Historically, train terminals are not great job creators,” Prince said. “But what they do is attract great job creators because they want to be right by the freight facility. (Elsewhere in the U.S.), intermodal terminals have attracted millions of square feet of warehouse and distribution which results in thousands of jobs.”

AutoZone already has a large distribution center a short distance from Wallula and Amazon plans to add its own two in the Tri-Cities, which could make rail access highly appealing.

“The doctrine is no longer to have a distribution center 250 miles from every store,” said Prince. “With e-commerce, it became, ‘I’ve got to be 50 miles or less to every possible consumer because they expect to have it delivered the next day.’ ”

Once open, Tiger Tri-Cities Logistics Center will be expected to handle 5,000 loads a month.

Each load is equivalent to a 53-foot container hauled by most tractor-trailers.

Tiger is informally calling this initial effort “phase 1A.”

It intends to work with the state and the Port of Walla Walla to expand the storage availability to hold more empty containers on-site.

Prince estimates about 15 ocean liners dock in the Northwest and if they all were to start using the Wallula site for shipments, the demand for storage would increase significantly.

Use of nearby land likely could allow for an increase to 12,000 stored containers each month, or even double that in the future.

Tiger Cool Express CEO Steve Van Kirk said in a statement, “The Pacific Northwest offers transformational potential for our company.”

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