*This story first appeared in The Budget’s June 13, 2018, Local Edition.
By Stacey Carmany
Area officials are looking at the past to help shape the future of transportation in Tuscarawas County.
Recently, members of a new task force convened by New Philadelphia Mayor Joel Day began meeting to discuss options for expanding railroad access in an effort to boost tourism and economic development in Tuscarawas County.
In particular, the group is looking to open up the county’s existing north-south rail lines to excursion trains and additional freight traffic by restoring a 1.6-mile connection between the Dennison Railroad Depot and Uhrichsville.
“What we’re trying to do as a task force is get that piece of rail connected again so that we can open up the North-South Corridor to more freight service and occasional excursion trains from the Dennison Depot,” Day explained.
Day explained that the task force was initially formed in response to what he and others saw as the underutilization of the existing tracks through New Philadelphia that are owned by CSX and leased to the RJ Corman Railroad Company.
“RJ Corman only runs maybe three trains a week between Dover and National Lime & Stone down in Midvale,” he explained.
The task force is hoping to encourage local manufacturers to make use of the existing north-south tracks by reconnecting them with a second line of tracks that runs east and west through Uhrichsville.
“I think in Eastern Ohio we need to take a serious look at restoring our rail service between our communities, particularly the communities that are growing out of the Utica Shale play and the plastics or the cracking plants and power plants that are being developed in Eastern Ohio,” Day said. “There’s going to be more and more demand to transport those products, and, to me, it makes more sense to put down the railroad tracks and move that by rail than to try to build more four-lane highways and to do it with trucks.”
Day noted that the cost to restore a one-mile section of railroad track is between $1 million and $2 million, while the cost per mile to build a new four-lane highway is between $4 million and $6 million in rural areas and upwards to $11 in urban areas.
“Just economically, you can see the sense of restoring railroad in this part of Ohio,” Day said. “It makes more sense because we’ ve got a lot of abandoned rail beds where the track could be laid back down to service the communities in Eastern Ohio with rail service rather than trying to build four-lane highways into them for truck transportation purposes.”
He added that shifting more freight to rail would also reduce the amount of heavy vehicles on the roadways, which in turn would cut down on wear and tear. “If we can get some of that weight off the highways and onto the rail, that’s gonna save on the expense of repairing the highways we have,” he explained.
In addition to opening the exist- ing railways up to additional freight traffic, the task force is also hoping that the reconnection will help boost local tourism by allowing for additional excursion trips from the Dennison Depot to His- toric Schoenbrunn Village in New Philadelphia and Warther Museum and Gardens in Dover.
“This is something that we have discussed for years – the potential of connecting the depot to Warther’s,” said Wendy Zucal, executive director of the Dennison Depot and a member of the local railroad task force. “To do that, we would have to build our own track in Dennison from the Dennison Depot to connect to the RJ Corman line. Our line runs east-west so we would have to build our own line west to connect to the RJ Corman line which runs north which is not used at all along Midvale hill.”
Zucal explained that the depot is already recognized by the State of Ohio as an excursion train operator and has a large team of volunteers trained in railroad safety as well as its own fleet of cars that are used primarily during the holidays for The Polar Express.
She noted, however, that the depot is currently limited to just 10 days of trips per year under an agreement with the Genesee & Wyoming that leases that tracks running east and west between Dennison and Coshocton.
“The railroad has been very good to us but they really are inter- ested in freight,” Zucal shared. “We would like to control our own destiny and have the opportunity to do more than 10 days of trips.”
The additional trips would also help boost the local economy by bringing additional tourism dollars into the area, according to Zucal. “The economic effect would be huge,” she said. “It would definitely be a huge surge in tourism income and jobs, and we would
love to operate Memorial Day through Labor Day with special excursions at different times of year.”
The county will only be able to reap the benefits, however, if the task force can reach an agreement with CSX to restore the connection between the two rail lines.
“They would have to agree to this reconnection,” Day explained. “What we’re doing is putting together a business plan to present to CSX to show how it could be profitable for them and also the short line people like RJ Corman and Genesee & Wyoming, who are leasing the CSX rail lines how it can be profitable for them to restore more freight business and also the benefit of excursion trains running between Dennison and Dover.”
Day said the task force is hoping to have a plan to present to the railroad company by late summer or early fall. “It’s going to take some time,” he said. “Anything like this always does take time, but we’ re committed to getting this done.”
In addition to Day and Zucal, the newly-developed local railroad task force also includes railroad consultant Mike Connor, Scott Robinson of the Tuscarawas County Chamber of Commerce, Blair Hillyer of the Tuscarawas County Community Improvement Corporation, Jeannette Wierzbicki of the Ohio Mid-Eastern Governments Association and Scott Reynolds of the Tuscarawas County Community and Economic Development Office.