Line pushes to rebuild Mich. track

Railroad says direct route to Toledo makes fiscal sense

12/3/2012
BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

BLISSFIELD, Mich. — Rebuilding seven miles of railroad track between Riga, Mich., and Ottawa Lake that was torn up three decades ago could save Lenawee County rail shippers millions of dollars in annual freight charges, the president of a local “short line” railroad says.

But Mark Dobronski, who heads the Adrian & Blissfield Railroad, said last week that while such a project “makes financial sense,” his small company can’t finance it on its own. And while the Michigan Department of Transportation included two phases of the track reconstruction in a long-range rail development plan it adopted last year, it listed the project — and several others in southeast Michigan — in a “good-projects” category for which no funding is set aside.

The route involved is part of the old Erie & Kalamazoo, the first railroad built in the Toledo area and often cited as the first west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Reduced to branch-line status by the late 19th century after construction of the current main line between Toledo and Chicago, the “Old Road” was broken into segments after the formation of Conrail in 1976. Conrail removed the track between Riga and Ottawa Lake after it stopped running trains to a factory in Clinton, Mich., during the early 1980s.

Since then, freight to or from industries along the A&B’s line has moved over either of two connecting lines: what is now the Indiana & Ohio Railway at Riga or Norfolk Southern’s route between Detroit and Fort Wayne, Ind., at Adrian.

But for two large agricultural shippers in the Blissfield area, Mr. Dobronski said, delivering cargo bound for the eastern United States to Norfolk Southern at Adrian starts a nearly 600-mile detour that could be eliminated if a direct route into Toledo were available.

Instead of going east right away, the A&B president said, grain shipments from Michigan Agricultural Commodities in Blissfield and Green Plains Ethanol is transferred to Montpelier, Ohio, then Fort Wayne, 0cand finally Elkhart, Ind., before being marshalled into eastbound trains.

The roundabout route adds about four days’ travel time and about $500 in extra cost for every carload, he said. Michigan Agricultural ships out thousands of carloads of grain annually, and more than 90 percent of that goes east.

“It adds up real quick,” Mr. Dobronski said. “This project, we figure it can pay for itself in less than 10 years.”

The Michigan transportation agency estimated the cost of rebuilding the track between Riga and Ottawa Lake at $7 million, plus another $7 million for track improvements between Ottawa Lake and Toledo to support the added traffic.

Mr. Dobronski said the track-rebuilding concept arose four years ago when state transportation officials solicited applications for federal “stimulus” funding. It didn’t make the cut then, he said, “but apparently we do have some support at MDOT,” because the project was included in the rail plan the state completed last year.

The plan named the Riga-Ottawa Lake project as a candidate for construction between 2016 and 2020 if funds were allocated.

It also lists a $4 million bridge replacement on the A&B in Adrian, $3.7 million for track, bridge, and crossing improvements on the Ann Arbor Railroad between Toledo and Ann Arbor, and $500,000 in track work on the Indiana & Ohio in Michigan as “good” projects — the plan’s first tier of proposals for which no funding is identified.

“The project list for the Michigan State Rail Plan included a number of items which had been brought to MDOT’s attention by private freight railroads,” said Janet Foran, an MDOT spokesman. “The proposal to reconnect Riga and Ottawa Lake by rail is one of these projects. The Adrian and Blissfield Railroad and MDOT have not discussed this project in any detail. Providing a better rail connection for Michigan businesses and industries served by the A&B should be a good thing. MDOT looks forward to working with the A&B to better understand this potential project.”

She added that while the project is a likely candidate for a state loan program, “It is likely that we would expect at least a portion would be funded by A&B.”

“We’re going to need some help to do it,” Mr. Dobronski said. “We’re a short line, and we’re not prepared to take on a huge debt like that.”

Besides shortening the trip for grain traffic from Michigan Agricultural, Mr. Dobronski said, a direct route into Toledo could attract ethanol shipments from Green Plains, which trucks its product to gasoline terminals in Detroit and Toledo. Green Plains uses rail to ship out distiller’s dried grains, an ethanol-refining by-product used as cattle feed.

Rebuilding the Riga-Ottawa Lake track would require the cooperation of Norfolk Southern Corp., which owns most of the empty right-of-way, Mr. Dobronski said. A building occupies one piece of the former rail bed in Ottawa Lake proper, he said, but a plan exists to work around that.

If the project were to move forward, Mr. Dobronski said, A&B and Norfolk Southern could exchange railcars on a siding near the grain elevator just south of Ottawa Lake, where the track now ends. But ideally, he said, A&B would arrange to deliver and pick up shipments directly in Toledo.

A&B conceivably could arrange to take over rail service to the elevator near Ottawa Lake too.

Norfolk Southern acquired the track and right-of-way southeast of Riga when it and CSX bought out Conrail in 1998. Before announcing a planned merger with CSX in 1996, Conrail had identified its track to Ottawa Lake as a line it wanted to sell or lease to another operator.

Who knows what the future might bring in that regard, Mr. Dobronski said. “At a minimum, they [Norfolk Southern] would interchange with us at Ottawa Lake.”

The short line’s president said he hasn’t discussed the idea recently with Norfolk Southern but was encouraged by preliminary talks from four years ago. Rerouting A&B’s freight to Toledo will help ease congestion on the line west of the city, which is one of the most congested sections of track in the country, he said.

“If there’s a viable plan that can be adequately funded, we’ll take a look at it,” David Pidgeon, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, said Friday in response. “Otherwise, we generally don’t comment on matters involving our business relationships.”

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.