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Improving freight rail infrastructure critical for economic development, conference speakers say

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Transportation in the north country might be described as a three-legged stool: airplanes, highways and freight rail are the channels by which products are shipped.

But the region’s freight rail system is often overlooked by municipal leaders as a foundation for economic development, Donald C. Alexander said Tuesday during a regional rail conference at the Watertown Elks Club, co-hosted by the Jefferson County Local Development Corp. and National Grid.

Highlights discussed during the daylong conference, involving about 60 private and public sector leaders, included the goal of rebuilding the 46-mile rail line from Newton Falls to Carthage; securing state grant funding for rail projects; and the pros and cons of using rail for companies.

Mr. Alexander, CEO of the JCLDC, said the conference’s goal was to start an ongoing dialogue with stakeholders in Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence and Franklin counties about how to improve the region’s aging rail infrastructure. Launching a “regional rail committee” was seen as a possibility.

“I’m hoping we’ll raise the level of visibility of freight rail to an area of importance equal to air and highway systems,” Mr. Alexander said.

Raymond F. Hessinger, freight rail bureau director for the state Department of Transportation, spoke about the need for public officials and manufacturers that use rail to collaborate on projects and understand each other’s unique needs.

Companies use three main factors to decide how to ship products: service, cost and speed, Mr. Hessinger said. Rail has an edge when it comes to providing quality, inexpensive service for moving commodities in bulk quantities.

“It’s certainly not the fastest way to get your goods there — trucks are probably going to do it faster,” he said. “But if you’re shipping a lot of heavy materials, rail is going to be the type of transportation choice you’re going to typically make.”

Two main railways operate lines that stretch through the north country. CSX Transportation Co. operates a line from Syracuse to Massena, which passes through Fort Drum. To the east, Calgary-based Canadian Pacific Railway operates a line from Montreal to New York City that crosses through the Adirondacks.

Public sector officials should seek to develop priority sites for the type of rail shipment that companies will be attracted to in the future, Mr. Hessinger said. Officials should also be sensitive to the fact that there is often a disconnect between the interests of public officials and businesses that are seeking to use rail.

“The railroad’s interests and our interests aren’t always 100 percent aligned,” he said. “They’re in the business to make money, but we tend to lay down a public policy agenda. Sometimes they fit together, sometimes they don’t. But you need to talk through those differences and find those opportunities where two interests are alike.”

It is also critical for railways that operate short lines — such as the 46-mile line that used to be operated by Mohawk, Adirondack and Northern Railroad Corp. — to have infrastructure that supports today’s 286,000-pound rail cars, Mr. Hessinger said.

A $9.9 million state grant was secured in 2012 by the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency to rebuild the line’s old infrastructure. A 15-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement that will lower the cost of doing business for the railway needs approval from taxing jurisdictions in Jefferson County to break ground on that project. Last year, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties OK’d separate PILOT agreements that were needed.

Applying for state grant funding from the DOT is now a highly competitive process, Mr. Hessinger said. Anywhere from $10 million to $20 million is expected to be earmarked in the Legislature’s budget this year for rail projects. But the DOT typically gets applications that collectively amount to roughly five times more than available funding.

Donald W. Rutherford, CEO of the Watertown Local Development Corp., told Mr. Bessinger that the agency is now exploring funding opportunities to make rail sidings accessible to prospective businesses at the City Center Park off South Bellow Avenue. The agency is debating whether it would be worthwhile to rehabilitate an existing rail spur at the park, even though it doesn’t have specific plans for a tenant to move in.

“Can we apply for the funding to move the rail siding now, and then use that as a marketing tool to attract a tenant?” Mr. Rutherford asked.

Mr. Hessinger, in response, said that it could be challenging to secure a state grant for a rail project if a specific developer’s plans aren’t included in the funding application.

“The work could be eligible for funding, but it could be difficult without knowing what your developer’s needs are on that site,” he said. “Developers have different needs, in terms of what rail facilities they’re looking at. We want to make sure the work fits with a company that’s moving into that site.”

Other speakers at the conference were Robert Celenze, manager of startup and integration, CSX Transportation; Eric P. King, an installation transportation officer at Fort Drum; Evan Eisenhandler, executive director, New York Operation Lifesaver, Albany; Mark C. Hall, town of Fine supervisor, St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency; Cameron Charles, director of operations, Interstate Commodities Inc., Troy, and Norman L. Barkley Jr., director of regulatory affairs and safety, Slack Chemical Co., Carthage.

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