Bad Dreams

Spring training is tantalizingly close, a good thing for baseball fans. To get ready for the big day, I like to hold a marathon of good baseball movies, from “The Sandlot” to “Bull Durham” and “Damn Yankees.” Unfortunately, for me, “Field of Dreams” has lost its luster. It has nothing to do with the Black Sox or even Iowa cornfields: Its catchphrase has been co-opted by politicians and ground into the fiscal dirt.

The catchphrase “build it, and they will come” sounds intriguing for dead baseball players. As a matter of public policy, it is expensive folly.

I heard the phrase last month while interviewing an official from the Port of Quincy, Wash., who used it to describe the port’s intermodal facility. Today, weekly unit trains of intermodal reefer containers leave the port for Chicago, giving local growers a boost. Today’s business model makes a good deal of sense and has attracted private investors who have brought in intermodal containers, refrigerated warehouse space and even some food processing facilities. But it’s not as simple as “build it, and they will come.”

After the intermodal yard was constructed using public money, it stood empty for years. The port and local politicians chased after BNSF Railway to provide service to pick up local agricultural goods and move them west to the Port of Seattle for export. The railroad said no for a very simple reason: the laws of physics. A mountain pass restricts the size of trains going over the pass. Trains going west already are full with goods coming from the East and Midwest. It didn’t make economic sense to start trains in Quincy to go such a short distance.

But the same physical restriction gave Quincy an advantage going eastbound. The trains coming over the pass going toward Chicago were also short and light. That allowed BNSF to stop in Quincy to pick up cars collected there for domestic shipments to the Midwest.

If the port’s marketing approach hadn’t changed from westbound export to eastbound domestic cargoes, the facility would still be sitting empty. Even now, no rail cargo is being picked up in Quincy going west.

Public officials in St. Louis last year unsuccessfully pushed a much more expensive version of “build it, and they will come.” They wanted to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in public money to build cold-storage centers so Lambert International Airport would become an air cargo hub shipping tons of pork each week to China.

Even in the most convoluted Hollywood movie, I can’t imagine cargo would have appeared from nowhere — even if they had planted corn on the runways.

Contact Stephanie Nall at stephnall@aol.com.

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