Clock ticking on decision to close rail crossing

COLUMBIANA – The day is drawing near for a decision on the possible closing of a railroad grade crossing for Buckeye Transfer Realty LLC, and some surrounding business owners are concerned about the effect it would have on traffic.

Mary Ann Ossoff and her husband Ted have owned Valley Golf Course on Esterly Drive the last 30 years and are worried the additional traffic at the state Route 344 and Esterly Drive intersection will pose safety hazards.

Traffic would be re-routed to the intersection if the Norfolk Southern Railroad crossing on Esterly Drive is closed.

The closing would allow Buckeye Transfer to accommodate a closed-loop rail inside the facility that will transload condensate from truck to rail tank cars from area oil and gas wells. The company is planning to store 100 unitrains along a 7,200-foot section of the loop, which crosses Esterly Drive on the north outside the main plant. The crossing re-enters the facility on the south side adjacent to the railroad’s main line and the crossing at Esterly Drive.

Closing the crossing that reportedly handles more than 127 trains a day will leave dead-ends to the north and south on Esterly Drive.

Lisa Wallace, who serves as general counsel for Buckeye Transfer, said in December the railroad company will not service the transloading facility unless the crossing on Esterly Drive is closed.

Mary Ann Ossoff said that as a business owner she understands the need for doing what it takes to be successful, but she believes people may not realize the full impact it will have in that area.

“I can understand everybody wants people to be successful, us included. Everybody wants new business in Fairfield Township. We want Buckeye Transfer to be able to do anything they need to do to make their money and be successful. Our only concern is the intersection and the closing of the railroad crossing,” she said.

She pointed out additional traffic at the already dangerous intersection will be joining already heavy traffic from Specialty Ceramics Inc. and Envelope 1 employees, who enter and exit there. Traffic to the golf course will also be added to that intersection during the on-season.

“You have Cherry Fork traffic, all of Buckeye traffic, Zarbana, Better Management Corp. … all of their traffic being forced to use that intersection, plus the normal east and west traffic on state Route 344,” she said. “Then, Buckeye Transfer Realty claims there will be 100 loaded tanker trucks coming in from state Route 11 using that intersection, so that is a lot of traffic being funneled to one already dicey intersection.”

Her husband Ted spoke with Ohio Department of Transportation District 11 Deputy Director Lloyd McAdams on Wednesday, and said he was told that a traffic study has not been done there, nor has one been requested.

A message left with McAdams on Wednesday was not returned.

The Ossoffs say they may lose some customers through the closure, but they are more concerned about safety.

“We are afraid for our customers, auto repair customers, SCI and Envelope 1 employees. Everybody that is using state Route 344. If there is 1,000 or more cars a day being forced to use it, we feel strongly, and we are passionate about this, we think it’s going to create a dangerous situation,” she said.

Specialty Ceramics Manager Dick Wilk said the company employs about 60 people.

“There is going to be hundreds and hundreds of people go through that intersection. There is going to be an accident,” he said.

Ossoff said Valley Golf Course draws customers from Boardman, Austintown and Youngstown, who all use state Route 11 to get there.

The posted speed limit on state Route 344 is 55 miles per hour.

“You could be sitting at Esterly east waiting to pull out and they are coming down that hill like a bat out of hell,” she said of traffic on state Route 344 toward Columbiana.

Not only is traffic going 55 miles per hour, but the state route curves to the right, left, right again and then banks down slightly before Esterly Drive, so traffic coming down the hill will be forced to stop quickly for those turning left onto Esterly Drive, she explained.

Drew Diebel, owner of Diebel Manufacturing on Esterly Drive, is also concerned about the closure.

The company is located on the opposite side of the railroad tracks as Valley Golf Course and draws truck traffic on a regular basis.

“I basically have to move my parking lot and I have to expand my parking lot into more of a place for trucks to turn around at,” he said.

He also said any traffic that mistakenly comes down the township road will have to turn around there, creating more wear and tear on his parking lot.

“I’m the one who is supposed to bear the brunt of everyone having to turn around,” he said. “How can you just close a road and not provide a publicly maintained area that allows people from the public to turn around? I think that is wrong.”

He added, however, that he has spoken to railroad company attorneys and the railroad may help him recover some of the cost of the parking lot expansion.

Fairfield Township Trustee Barry Miner said the township will post “No Outlet” signs to warn motorists the crossing is closed. Barricades will also be placed at the gate crossing.

He and railroad officials have been communicating with Diebel regarding how the closure will affect that area, he added.

“We are working to try to get some things (addressed) that were brought up at the public hearing. We listened and we are still in the process of trying to get some things done,” he said.

Miner’s work history includes 30 years with ODOT.

Diebel and Ossoff said they are aware of the argument the railroad crossing closure is the safer alternative.

Columbiana attorney Mark Hutson, who represents Buckeye Transfer, agreed railroad grade crossing closures are normally based on safety issues.

He said is not aware of any recent traffic studies at the state Route 344 intersection, but that one would likely have been done when the bypass was constructed in the early 1960s.

“I would assume ODOT would have had to have a reason to build the overpass and when they had that reason they would have designed that overpass and any intersection with the thought of what traffic there was at the time,” he said, adding that traffic included what was coming and going from the former Kaiser Refractories and Ballonoff Products.

Buckeye Transfer is operating where Kaiser was formerly located and Ballonoff was where Envelope 1 is located.

“Roads don’t get designed without traffic studies … when ODOT did that they obviously had to have spent some money, and there had to have been a reason,” he said.

Diebel and Ossoff stressed they are not against Buckeye Transfer, or what the company is trying to do.

“I don’t know anyone who thinks it is a bad project for the area economically,” Diebel said.

Ossoff said she is also not against the Columbiana Area Chamber of Commerce’s support of Buckeye Transfer, but that she has not seen any Chamber members address the safety issues at public meetings.

She and Diebel are not Chamber members.

Chamber co-director Larry Diedrick, who sits on the business development committee, said the Chamber supports the company from a business-commerce standpoint.

Buckeye is a Chamber member and was awarded Business of the Year by the organization at its Fall Showcase in October.

Diedrick said Buckeye has built some roads on its 95-acre property to take some traffic from Cherry Fork Drive, but that may not alleviate additional traffic from state Route 344.

“The chamber is not aware of any objective assessment suggesting that the railroad closure increases or decreases hazards at the intersection, and therefore we have not taken a position on this issue one way or another,” he said.

Township trustees are slated to make a decision at the Jan. 23 regular meeting. Miner said another delay is possible.

“Hopefully everything would come together by the 23rd, but we in no way as a board of trustees are going to make a hasty decision. We are going to look at all the information. I can’t speak for the board, but we may delay that decision pending the information that we are still working on,” he said.