By Ashley Luthern
A Canadian company is expected to purchase the Youngstown and Southern rail line, but not everyone is happy about it.
The Columbiana County Port Authority approved a letter of intent in April to sell the 36-mile line to Tervita, an environmental and energy-services company, for $2.9 million. The purchase is set to be finalized in mid-July.
Tracy Drake, port authority executive director, said $1.7 million of the $2.9 million sale will be used to pay off loans.
“The port authority perspective is trying to preserve the rail line. We have bridged that by trying to get it up and running, and it’s showing its value, and Tervita will operate it with all the benefits of their vast resources,” Drake said.
Although most of the line runs through Columbiana County on its way to Darlington, Pa., Boardman officials and residents have traditionally been vocal about rail problems, particularly debris along the line.
Now, they’re expressing concern again, wondering what will be hauled on the track and at what speed.
Ralph Cascarelli resides on Walnut Street and attended a trustees meeting last month to ask what could be done about the nearby Maple Avenue crossing, which is steep with overgrown grass.
“This railroad has been the downfall of Maple Avenue. [Motorists] cannot get out. You have a traffic jam, and people come up pretty fast, and they don’t stop,” Cascarelli said.
Cascarelli was told that the Public Utility Commission of Ohio is in charge of rail crossings, but he and others from his neighborhood at the meeting were alarmed when trustees discussed the rail-line sale. Trustees said they have documentation that the line is expected to be used to haul materials related to the shale industry and have heard the line’s speed limit could rise.
When contacted by The Vindicator, Drake said it was his understanding Tervita is considering using the line to transport outbound liquids from wet natural-gas extraction.
“That gas has a lot of liquids attached to it, and most are processed on the East Coast or down South. It could also be used for transportation to bring in the limestone that goes into roadways and sand and maybe even water,” he said.
In recent years, the line has been used primarily to haul construction and demolition waste to a landfill in Columbiana County.
Susan Nelson, a Tervita spokeswoman for U.S. operations, declined to comment about the company’s specific plans until the sale is final.
“We would like to potentially do a story on the railroad acquisition, but right now we are still under a disclosure policy. ...We’re really excited about the development in Ohio and everything about Utica [shale] development,” she said.
Rail companies can tell residents what they’re hauling, but they are not required to by law, said Julianne Kaercher, public information officer for the Ohio Rail Development Commission.
“If it’s toxic or poisonous, they usually notify that they are transferring something hazardous, but they don’t have to be specific. ... It’s pretty standard not to disclose what they’re hauling because it could be a safety hazard, as far as security. For example, if they’re hauling something that could be ignited, they don’t want that information out there at all,” she said.
Kaercher said companies prefer hauling on rail because it’s considered safer than hauling on truck.
The rail commission’s executive director Matt Dietrich said under federal surface transportation law, Tervita would have a common carrier responsibility— meaning it would haul what customers want.
“As a common carrier, they quote rates to companies, but there’s a requirement that they can’t say ‘No, we won’t quote you to haul what you want,’” Dietrich said.
He added that he has not heard anything about Tervita transporting anything hazardous. Often what’s carried on a rail line is determined by what businesses are on the line or could develop along the line, Dietrich said.
The rail commission has agreed to forgive $1 million in penalties owed by the port authority for falling behind on payments after another potential buyer did not follow through the purchase.
As for the speed of trains on the line, Drake said the line operates at 10 mph or less now, per its federal classification from the Federal Railroad Administration.
“The next classification up is either 25 or 30 mph, and that’s where the federal commission comes in and determines whether the line is safe for those speeds, and a company can say, ‘Here’s what we intend to do to achieve that status.’ And I do not know if that’s Tervita’s intention,” Drake said.
Still, the uncertainty is enough to worry Boardman trustees and several residents.
“We’re talking about hazardous waste coming past our schools, hospitals and homes. This is a decision made by people who have never seen this rail line,” said Trustee Thomas Costello.
“This is beyond our control. We’re reaching out to residents to contact their state senator, state representatives and congressmen,” Costello said.
Trustees have distributed postcards with state and federal officials’ contact information.
But even though the trustees flatly oppose the sale, Dietrich and Drake say it could benefit Boardman and other towns on the line.
“Especially in eastern Ohio, there’s a lot of demand for rail. ...As gas prices go up the demand for rail goes up because it can be a more affordable option and ... can be the difference in making [companies] competitive,” Dietrich said.
Drake added that a private company would have more resources than the port authority, a public entity, to address concerns on the line, such as the Maple Avenue crossing. The port authority received state funding about 12 years ago to repair the line.
“I guess it’s safe to say a company like Tervita is going to have deeper pockets than the port authority and is probably going to be able to do more work on the line to make it more modern,” Drake said.