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Regional rail conference slated Tuesday to spotlight industry trends, infrastructure needs

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Spotlighting the needs of freight rail infrastructure across Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, a rail conference will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Watertown Elks Lodge, 728 Bradley St.

Lunch will be provided at the public conference, which is free.

Industry experts will share information about regional trends, infrastructure needs and economic development plans of the rail industry at the event, which will be hosted jointly by the Jefferson County Local Development Corp. and National Grid. Following a morning panel discussion, attendees will participate in breakout sessions in the afternoon to brainstorm about important rail industry issues in the north country.

The goal of the conference is to start a dialogue among stakeholders across the region about how to improve rail infrastructure. Speakers will include Raymond F. Hessinger, freight rail bureau director, state Department of Transportation; 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; Patrick J. Kelly, chief executive officer, 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.

The rehabilitation of a 46-mile railroad that spans Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties will be among the topics discussed during the conference. The St. Lawrence County IDA secured a $9.9 million grant from the state in 2012 to rebuild the line from Newton Falls to Carthage, which is owned by the St. Lawrence County IDA and operated by Mohawk, Adirondack and Northern Railroad Corp.

That project won’t move forward, however, until a 15-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement, designed to ease the cost of doing business for the railroad company, is approved. That PILOT agreement, which was approved last year by taxing jurisdictions in St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, is expected to be authorized by Jefferson County taxing jurisdictions this spring, which would clear the way for the rehabilitation project to begin, said Donald C. Alexander, CEO of the Jefferson County Local Development Corp. Local entities affected by the agreement are Jefferson County, the town of Wilna and the Carthage Central School District.

Payments made by the railroad company to taxing jurisdictions will be determined by a formula that accounts for the overall rail volume and types of traffic, Mr. Alexander said. Payments would increase as the volume on the line climbs. The railroad company would lease the line from the St. Lawrence County IDA over the 15-year duration of the PILOT. At the conclusion of that agreement, the operator would take over ownership of the line.

As part of its grant agreement with the St. Lawrence County IDA, Empire State Development Corp. has required all three counties to approve PILOT agreements so that municipalities would not have the authority to overtax the railroad company, Mr. Alexander said.

“What this agreement does is ensure the stability of the rail line,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is stimulate future growth.” Jefferson County “taxing jurisdictions will agree to this, but not because they are going to get a lot of revenue from the PILOT. What they’re agreeing to is the ability to stabilize the rail line so that it can continue to support” companies that transport large volumes of freight.

The state-funded project to rebuild the line was supported as a priority project by the North Country Regional Economic Development Council as a component needed to restart Newton Falls Fine Paper. The mill, an off-and-on operation since 1897, was closed in the fall by parent company Scotia Investments, Nova Scotia.

The rehabilitation of the line also would benefit a handful of other companies by establishing infrastructure to handle large, heavy volumes of freight, Mr. Alexander said. In Carthage, Slack Chemical and Climax Paperboard use the line for shipments and deliveries.

Along with the line rehabilitation project, a separate investment of about $1 million in Carthage is needed to upgrade the rail crossing in the village so it has the ability to support large freight volumes, Mr. Alexander said.

The conference also will include a discussion of industries that would benefit from improved rail infrastructure, Mr. Alexander said. The transportation of large volumes of agricultural and wood-related products from the region — such as soybeans, wood chips and raw lumber — would benefit greatly from improved rail infrastructure, he said.

“With transportation costs going up, the likelihood is that we’ll get companies that want to use high-volume transportation provided by rail,” Mr. Alexander said.

This past fall, the JCLDC hired Daniel T. Kelly, former state DOT regional rail coordinator, to serve as a part-time consultant by providing the agency with expertise on rail issues.

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