Piles of sand are expected to be a hot commodity in the Mahoning Valley in coming years. So will tons of scrap steel and steel pipe, along with huge amounts of natural gas liquids and waste water.
Those products will be the building blocks of what economic development officials believe will be the area's new economy for decades - gas and oil drilling in the Utica and Marcellus shale rock formations under eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania and nearby states.
How to get vast quantities of material in and out of the area efficiently is a question that some experts feel can be partly answered with one word: Railroads.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
A CSX train is shown as it transports coal westbound through McDonald. A missing one-mile section north of Ravenna prevents direct rail travel between the Valley and Cleveland, forcing trains to take a longer, more costly route. A possible four-mile link north of Kent would allow trains to avoid slow travel through that city.
"I talked to an oil executive, and he said Ohio has to be ready in terms of rail capacity. Rail and (shale) are linked closely," said said Eric Planey, the Regional Chamber's vice president for international business attraction.
The problem is the area's rail system has "missing links," places where unused tracks have been torn out or left in disrepair as factories closed during decades of deindustrialization.
A missing one-mile section north of Ravenna prevents direct rail travel between the Valley and Cleveland, forcing trains to take a longer, more costly route. A possible four-mile link north of Kent would allow trains to avoid slow travel through that city.
The leader of a new nonprofit group called RESTORE - Rail Enhancements=Sustainable Transportation, Opportunity, Revitalization and Employment - said such improvements are needed to allow shale companies and others to thrive in the area.
"You can get goods out if you're willing to take indirect routes," said Kenneth Prendergast, whose group officially began late last week. "That may work for high-value goods like auto parts, but if you're moving sand, those distribution centers will go to places where there's good rail."
Prendergast said suppliers of low-value commodity products like sand will go wherever they must in order to store and distribute goods for drilling shale customers.
"If we don't have the infrastructure in the Mahoning Valley, those products will go someplace else. We think the Mahoning Valley is the best place," he said.
Large amounts of sand is used in the hydraulic fracturing process of drilling deep into the shale rock, then pumping sand-laden water into the wellhole to fracture the shale and allow the gas to be extracted.
Youngstown's V&M Star needs rail to bring in large quantities of scrap metal to remelt in order to make the steel pipes used by drillers, and then to ship the pipe to customers.
One product of the drilling - natural gas liquids - needs to be loaded into tankers and shipped to pipeline, barge or ship companies for transportation to customers.
Putting more of the bulky, low-value commodity goods on rail also will benefit the public by taking the heaviest loads off highways, Prendergast added.
"The big benefit is to skim off the heaviest, most pavement-damaging truck loads and put the freight on rails, which are privately owned and maintained. Taxpayers do better financially," he said.
Currently, railroads carry 70 to 80 million gross tons of freight a year, about the same as the Ohio Turnpike, he said.
Growing highway funding probems are adding to the argument for better rail service. Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jerry Wray testified before Congress earlier this year that falling revenues from the gasoline tax, plus inflation in the construction sector, ''have seriously hindered ODOT's ability to provide much needed projects for our economic future."
The area still has mainline railroad service from CSX and Norfolk Southern, but more smaller short and branch lines, along with transfer areas where sand, pipe and other goods can be loaded and offloaded, are needed, officials say.
A bill to extend a tax credit on rehabilitation and investment in short line railroads earlier this month reached a majority of supporters in the U.S. House of Representatives with 226 co-sponsors.
The bill would extend through Dec. 31, 2017, tax credits that are due to expire at Dec. 31, according to the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. Reaching a majority means the measure should be included in a larger tax bill.
A state agency focusing on public-private railroad partnerships already has joined in restoring some area rail lines.
"We're working with the Youngstown and Southeastern Railroad through Mahoning and Columbiana counties to restructure terms of a loan with a new owner who is developing it for some shale activities," said Matthew Dietrich, executive director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission.
The commission also guided a $20 million federal stimulus grant to help V&M develop a railyard at the new pipe mill. In addition, it's involved in the CSX's National Gateway, an $800 million to $900 million project that includes raising bridges to accommodate double-high stacked rail cars.
Dietrich said the commission picks projects that it believes provide the most economic impact, something he said isn't yet clear about some "missing link" rails, such as the one near Ravenna.
"Do circuituous routes equate to poor service? I can't say right now," he said. "A lot depends on where the commodities are going and wheret he best intercharge yards are. It depends on market conditions. Rail service isn't cheap to put back in. Market conditions have to drive that."