YOUNGSTOWN - Improvements at the Ohio Commerce Center in Lordstown and expansion of the Ohio Junction yard in Youngstown near V&M Star ranked first and second in a study of how area railroad service can be rejuvenated.
"The mission was to get some low-hanging fruit to build capacity and develop rail," Ken Prendergast, executive director of a group focused on boosting rail use, said Thursday after presenting the study to economic development officials at the Youngstown Club.
Sarah Lown, senior director of economic development for the Western Reserve Port Authority, said she plans to present the findings to the board at the June meeting.
"We'll pick a project," she said, noting a few could be done at the same time.
The board paid Prendergast's All Aboard Ohio-RESTORE $10,000 to prioritize potential projects that could be done quickly and cheaply.
The Ohio Commerce Center was budgeted at $2.17 million and could be done in a year or less because much of the engineering for track switches and more tracks on which to store railcars already has been done, Prendergast said.
The center also offers the highest railroad car traffic in the study of about 13,000 railcar loads per year, he said.
The Ohio Junction under the Division Street bridge in Youngstown was budgeted at $2.3 million and also could be done in less than a year. The junction handles 10,000-plus railcars a year.
Providing better rail access and other work at third-place CASTLO/Lally Rail Service Yard in the Campbell-Struthers area was budgeted at $1.33 million by the study, although CASTLO estimated it would cost $1.18 million. It, too, could be done in a year or less.
Improving tracks at Warren Steel Holdings plant north of Warren, plus a west Warren connection for the Genesee & Wyoming Railroad and CSX, placed fourth at $1.9 million and a year or less timeframe.
The top four projects finished one point apart, from 53 points for the Ohio Commerce Center to 50 for Warren Steel Holdings.
The goal, Lown said, is to find ways for the Port Authority to make money while helping the area economy by attracting employers. More jobs also could help generate business and leisure air travel at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, which the board runs.
Lown said the Port Authority could make money by issuing tax-exempt bonds for a fee. Employers could save sales tax dollars on building material on Port Authority-owned land.
The Port Authority would have to acquire probably a couple of hundred acres where a developer would want to build a facility, such as a "cracker" plant that would process the expected abundance of Utica shale natural gas from area wells.
A cracker plant, which resembles an oil refinery, uses heat to break ethane molecules in natural gas into smaller components, including valuable ethylene for making plastic.
Lown acknowledged the challenge for the cash-strapped board would be to come up with money to buy land, but she added, "We'll find a way. It has to be signed-on-the-dotted-line scenario."
Board member Andres Visnapuu said development of the area's rich Utica Shale natural gas formation "is going to happen with or without us. We can help get things going."
Saying a major goal is to get as much truck traffic as possible off area roads to prevent congestion and damage, Visnapuu called the money spent on the study "probably the best I ever saw spent." He said the criteria can be applied to other projects.
Commercial Realtor Jim Pirko suggested DeForest rail area between Warren and Niles be considered for its potential aid to the nearby RG Steel mill and other manufacturing sites.