Need for rail commission questionable

Shortcomings came to light when community leaders and owners of a large tract of industrial property last year attempted unsuccessfully to convince the federal Surface Transportation Board to block the abandonment of 14 miles of rail line proposed by CSX.

It was May 2018 when CSX filed the petition to abandon rail line that travels in a semi-circle between Newton Falls and Niles, passing through Weathersfield, Howland, Warren and Warren Township. It was argued that rail line is a key component in the economic revitalization of the former RG Steel site located in Warren, Warren Township and Howland.

By fall, it was clear the federal board that regulates rail line use would allow the abandonment despite objections filed by community and economic leaders, along with BDM Warren Steel Holdings, LLC, owner of the former RG Steel property.

In attempting to revitalize the former steel mill site, BDM Warren Steel Holdings even had offered to purchase the line.

It’s clear now that attempts to preserve the rail line were unsuccessful, at least in part, due to technical errors made in filing complex paperwork and documentation required by the federal agency. Those involved in the debate have said the errors may have occurred simply due to the lack of experience and expertise in fighting rail abandonments, and the relatively short turnaround time for responses. It has been decades since other unused area rail lines were abandoned in favor of bicycle trails, after all, and nowadays rail abandonment typically is a very rare occurrence. In this case and with no advance warning from CSX, government and business leaders and property owners had less than two months to respond to the federal agency after CSX petitioned to abandon the line.

In response, a committee is being formed aimed at preventing future scenarios. Called the Mahoning Valley Rail Commission, the panel is comprised of representatives from the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber, Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, Mahoning Valley Economic Development Corporation, commissioners from Trumbull and Mahoning counties and the Western Reserve Port Authority.

Undoubtedly, we agree that better preparedness and advance planning is key to preventing future abandonment of rail lines that might be needed for economic development. Necessary tasks outlined by the group include identifying local rail infrastructure and working toward ensuring railroads and rail corridors are being fully utilized to serve businesses and communities. Regular communication with rail operators and with businesses about the role rail service plays for them also is critical.

But consider this. Several of the agencies involved in the Mahoning Valley Rail Commission employ very capable economic development experts. We believe each would be equipped, even individually, to handle this important effort. So, why, then, have they determined it’s preferable to create yet another board or entity? Particularly when those involved have acknowledged that rail abandonment attempts so rarely occur.

Also consider this. On at least one occasion several years ago, the Columbiana County Port Authority got involved in opposing abandonment of several miles of shortline rail line. That port authority was successful, and ended up purchasing the line before reselling it several years later. Now, the Columbiana Port Authority is not regularly involved with rail abandonment, but it raises the question of whether any one agency — like the local Western Reserve Port Authority or the local Chamber — would be better equipped to become educated on the process and dealings with the federal Surface Transportation Board in order to be better prepared in the future. And aren’t representatives of the Chamber or even the Port Authority, for instance, already communicating regularly with existing and potential local businesses about their needs?

Remember the old saying, “Too many cooks spoil the broth”? In business, that saying can be adapted to: “If everyone is in charge of a project, then inevitably, no one is in charge.” In order to avoid allowing issues to fall through the cracks, we suggest it might be better to simply allow the experts in area organizations like the Chamber or the Port Authority to take on the responsibility and tasks of being better prepared to respond swiftly to planned abandonments in the future. And if they need assistance from other organizations, they only need to ask.

Incidentally, attempts to market the former RG Steel property are continuing. Norfolk Southern rail line still services the property, and now talks are underway with other rail operators about possible service should dual service be required by a potential investor.