Barstow International Gateway, a planned $1.5 billion rail yard, and warehouse-distribution facility, could double that city’s population and over time transform not just Barstow but the High Desert, according to its proponents.
Barstow’s days as a High Desert city best known for being a stopping point between Southern California and Las Vegas might be coming to an end.
Instead, the 75-year-old city in the Mojave Desert that traces its roots to the 1840s as an agricultural and mining town is on the verge of becoming a major logistics focal point, not only in California or the western United States but the entire country.
BNSF Railway Co. of Fort Worth, Texas wants to build Barstow International Gateway – BIG – a $1.5 billion rail yard, intermodal facility and several million square feet of warehouse-distribution facilities on the city’s west side.
If it’s approved, most of the project will be developed along a 4.5-mile corridor between Hinkley Lenwood roads. That land is about 90 percent vacant, and what remains there can be cleared away without much difficulty, said Barstow City Manager Willie A. Hopkins, Jr.
Burlington Northern owns most of that land and is buying what’s left, Hopkins said.
BIG is expected to create 20,000 jobs, direct or indirectly, by the time it’s operating, according to Burlington Northern.
When completed, the mega-development will cover 4,500 acres, dwarfing the 600-acre Barstow Yard, which is owned and operated by Burlington Northern Railway. That facility is used to separate railroad cars and get them on tracks for their next journey.
It’s is reportedly the second-largest facility of its kind west of Rocky Mountains, although perhaps not for long.
It’s too early to estimate how much revenue BIG will bring to Barstow and the High Desert. No construction timeline has been announced, and the planning commission and city council are at least a year away from seeing a formal proposal, according to Hopkins.
“The council is very supportive of the project, but there’s nothing for it to vote on yet,” Hopkins said.
Ultimately, BIG will have a bigger hurdle to clear than its home city’s approval. It will have to meet the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, a strict set of regulations that has blocked, or delayed, projects less ambitious than BIG.
It’s also possible that environmental groups that are trying to slow the growth of the Inland region’s logistic industry might oppose the project, but so far there are so signs of that happening, according to Hopkins.
“The community is very solid behind this project,” said Hopkins, who was director of Alameda County’s general services agency – a position he held for six years – before coming to Barstow in 2021. “Burlington Northern has been doing business in the High Desert for years. It will be a challenge making this project happen, but it has a lot of support.”
Twenty thousand jobs will bring a lot of people to Barstow [pop. 25,415] and its surrounding communities. Such an influx can only add more residential and retail development, as well as more schools, medical and recreation facilities.
“Some people are calling this a potential game-changer, not just for Barstow but for the High Desert, and I wouldn’t argue with that,” Hopkins said. “I think it will have a global impact, because it’s going to ease the traffic at the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, which will improve supply chains everywhere.
“You can’t bring 20,000 jobs into an area and not attract a lot of people. And I’m very confident that will happen.”
Attacking BIG on environmental grounds might be difficult.
Regardless of their size, most logistics operations add trucks to highways, but BIG is designed to do exactly the opposite: it will reduce, not increase truck traffic on Southern California highways.
Once shipments reach Los Angels and Long Beach, the containers will be moved directly from the ships onto trains. From there they will be transported through the Alameda Corridor along Burlington Northern’s main line, then to Barstow, where the goods will be transported to warehouse-distribution centers throughout North America.
Besides taking 18-wheel trucks hauling 40-foot shipping containers off the highways, BIG will make it easier, and quicker, to unload containers. That will reduce the congestion at both ports that started during the pandemic and has not gone away entirely.
“By allowing for more efficient transfer of cargo directly between ships and rail, the Barstow International Gateway will maximize rail and distribution efficiency regionally and across the U.S. supply chain and reduce truck traffic and freeway congestion in the Los Angeles Basin and the Inland Empire,” said Katie Farmer, Burlington Northern president and chief executive officer, in a statement.
“This will play a critical role in improving fluidity throughout our rail network, moving containers off the ports quicker, and facilitating improved efficiency at our existing intermodal hubs, including those in the Midwest and Texas.”
Once construction starts, Barstow will soon become a hotspot of residential and retail development that will grow over time, said Phil Bensinger, owner and president of Capital Income Properties Group in Riverside.
“This is going to be a game changer for the High Desert, and I have no doubt that it’s going to happen,” Bensinger said. “Burlington Northern is owned by Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in America, and he finishes what he starts.”
Capital Investment Properties buys and sells commercial properties on behalf of its clients, an it’s currently looking at sites in and around Barstow, sites it believes will go up in value because of the anticipated population growth associated with BIG.
“I’ve been looking for properties with two other brokers, and we aren’t the only brokers up there doing that,” Bensinger said. “I expect to spend 25 to 30 percent of my time [in the High Desert] while this project is being developed.”