Area development officials, rail advocates and a Boardman businessman are exploring whether 13 miles of defunct rail line in southern Columbiana County could be redeveloped to create a direct freight-shipping link from Trumbull and Ashtabula counties to the Ohio River.
The project, which could cost upward of $100 million, has gained the attention of a statewide group focused on boosting rail use, an official with the Western Reserve Port Authority and even a local entrepreneur who says funding should not be a problem.
The supporters believe that a direct rail link would be a more favorable shipping route for products linked to the natural gas drilling industry, and could help secure other midstream processing and manufacturing plants in the area.
Ken Prendergast, executive director of All Aboard Ohio-RESTORE, a statewide rail advocacy group, pointed out that building pipelines to ship natural gas obtained in the Utica Shale would be more costly and only able to ship the gas products out.
''Given how rugged this countryside is, you would have to come up with probably about $300 million for a pipeline,'' Prendergast said.
Western Reserve Port Authority member Andres Visnapuu, who attended a recent local meeting of All Aboard Ohio-RESTORE, is eager to see development of infrastructure like rail get ahead of Utica Shale Play drilling.
''The Utica and Marcellus Shale opportunities are here, and it all depends on how we, as a region, react to that opportunity. We want to be ahead of the curve,'' Visnapuu said. ''You have got to invest in infrastructure. When you have one of the largest deposits of oil and wet gas on the planet, it's a no-brainer.''
Rail line would allow imports of materials needed in the drilling process, like immense amounts of sand and water, along with exporting products that could be manufactured using natural gas byproducts.
Natural gas midstream processing plants could convert ethane obtained from Utica and Marcellus Shale natural gas liquids into chemicals like ethylene used to produce everything from plastics to tires to antifreeze.
Manufacturers of such products have been known to locate near the sources of natural gas.
Top executives in the drilling industry have said, after pipelines, the most important infrastructure they need is rail access.
Boardman-area businessman William Ragone, who recently attended an All Aboard Ohio meeting with Visnapuu, believes funding for the project would not be as difficult as it may appear.
''There are programs out there that would allow us to do this ... If you have the right people and the right plan, you can find the funding,'' Ragone said. ''It's important because it's infrastructure. The government is doing its part, but the private sector has to do it too.''
Ragone owns Ragone Resources LLC, and is part-owner of Crush Metals, a scrap metal brokerage firm that also specializes in transportation. He is a nonpracticing dentist who relocated in 2008 to the Youngstown area from New York City, and now is very passionate about helping the area to improve.
''I believe in the Valley. I am vested in this community,'' Ragone said.
The rail line in question, between Negley in Columbiana County and Glasgow, Pa., was originally built in 1933, but was scrapped after 30 years in 1963 when strip mining near the rail line led to a landslide just south of the "Grimms Bridge Tunnel," burying part of the tracks, Prendergast said.
The line's right of way still exists on parcels of land owned privately and also travels through parts of a state park.
Despite the potential, Prendergast is realistic about the obstacles that would have to be overcome to redevelop the line.
''This line has as much potential as it has unanswered questions,'' he said. Those include whether the tunnel and surrounding soil is stable. In addition, a rail bridge in Fredericktown would have to be reconstructed.
But Visnapuu and Ragone already are convinced that the project is necessary.
''We have to make sure that the midsteam projects are developed here,'' said Visnapuu. ''Isn't it better to send out the finished products rather than just the raw materials?
''We need to open the thinking up and be open to funding from any part of the U.S. no matter what it takes. We have a chance to re-emerge because Utica gives us that opportunity,'' Visnapuu said.