When the Conrail merger took effect a year ago last June and train traffic increased across northern Ohio by as much as 50%, communities began clamoring for help to build railroad overpasses. Urban areas quickly got funding, but it wasn't until this year that the state offered money from its coffers to help smaller communities and rural areas. But even $200 million won't go far. That's why a creative overpass design in Huron County could give some communities new light at the end of the tunnel. 90.3's Karen Schaefer reports.
Karen Schaefer- When Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads took over Conrail last year, community leaders like Barbara O'Keefe in the village of Wellington in Lorain County realized that - with the anticipated increases in train traffic - they were looking at potential disaster.
Barbara O'Keefe- The gentleman from CSX told me that as of the first of June, there'd be 31 eastbound and 31 westbound. And he also suggested that they would be anywhere from a mile to three miles long and traveling through the village at 60 miles an hour. I have some grave concerns about this. We need a rail separation here someplace.
KS- Safety was the biggest concern for most communities, many of which would be cut in half by rail traffic, resulting in blocked access to emergency services such as police, fire and EMS. One of the worst-hit was Berea, where the two railroad lines converge, carrying much of the freight traffic from the East Coast to Chicago. Legislators like Congressman Dennis Kucinich stepped in to help.
Dennis Kucinich- We are here today to formally announce an additional agreement between myself, Berea, Norfolk Southern, CSX and the Ohio Rail Development Commission, which will allow Berea to begin the process for the construction of the underpass projects here at Front Street and also at Bagley Road...
KS- The city of Berea was promised nearly $47 million in state, federal and railroad money to construct three grade separations. But other communities around the state clamored for assistance, too. After nearly a year of legislative meetings and public hearings, the state promised to spend $200 million over ten years to help build overpasses. But at an April meeting in Wellington, the Ohio Department of Transportation's Tom O'Leary made it clear that money wasn't going to cover the 260 overpass projects requested.
Tom O'Leary- What we found was the estimate on all of these was really more than half a billion, it was really close to a billion dollars and as Representative Bender and Senator Armbruster will tell you, there's not a billion dollars floating around out there...
KS- ODOT and the Ohio Rail Development Commission hammered out a list of criteria to prioritize the projects, then told communities what they would need to do to get funding.
TO- ...I think communities need to do an inventory of potential project sites, make sure that they're looking at not only the one that they think is best...
KS- But even with state help, at an estimated $3 million per rural rail overpass and $7-12-million for those in urban areas, creative financing will be needed. That's why the Section Line 30 overpass at the Willard railroad yards in southwest Huron County could be crucial. Carl Essex is an administrator with the county engineer's office.
Carl Essex- This is the first brand new overpass on the CSX corridor since the CSX's acquisition of Conrail. Of course, the other little kudo that goes along with it, this rascal came in two months ahead of schedule and more dollars under budget than we want the County Commissioners to know.
KS- At just $1.1 million, the 273-foot span over 5 tracks is less than half the cost of most rural rail overpasses. Better yet, Essex says most of the funding came from the railroads.
CE- The technicality is, they did not pay anything for the overpass. This is a lot like old line poker. They gave us half a million for every railroad crossing we would agree to close. So in this vicinity, we're closing down three railroad crossings.
KS- Essex says his county's cookie-cutter design took only fifteen months to build. The tight construction schedule was facilitated by the ease of purchasing right of way and by avoiding federal funding and the need to meet federal regulations. While it might not work everywhere, Essex believes the Willard overpass could work for other communities.
CE- Think of the railroad as a river and go build a bridge. It's not rocket science after all. You pile dirt at one end, you pile dirt on the other and you build a bridge between them.
KS- That wouldn't work in Berea, where city administrators decided an overpass would cause too much disruption in city traffic and displace too many downtown businesses. But Berea City Engineer Al Troietto agrees that the Huron County plan may have merit for more rural areas.
Al Troietto- I'm sure that this could be used in different communities in rural situations. It seems like it would be a very viable project to be incorporated in other cities if they need to use something similar to that.
KS- Troietto says the overpass might even be appropriate for neighboring Olmstead Township. So far, the Huron County plan has been shared with 25 other communities and Carl Essex says his department is willing to provide technical assistance. Communities can also apply to ODOT for more standard plans. In the meantime, the deadline for prioritizing projects is fast approaching. The state is expected to begin funding approval for new railroad overpass projects in the spring of 2001. In Huron County, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.