When tractor-trailers haul loads of autos, soccer balls and new couches across America, they use public roads financed by taxpayers.
But when trains haul exactly the same goods in virtually the same containers, they must use mostly privately-owned tracks, bridges and overpasses that need regular maintenance.

That’s why railroads like Norfolk Southern — which serves the Tristate — have to reinvest up to 18 percent of their revenue in capital projects, versus the trucking industry’s 4 to 5 percent, explains Bill Harris, vice president of government relations for Norfolk Southern.

And that limits railroad expansion, putting them at a competitive disadvantage.

Yet America’s rails may be a solution to a freight traffic system that is clogging our highways and airways with fossil-fuel dependent vehicles and pollution.

Rails can be less costly transportation options for businesses, too, hauling 300 40-foot-containers with a handful of staff, compared to a tractor-trailer fleet with 300 drivers.

Two dozen local, high-profile business people, along with economic development and government officials, met in May to seek solutions to freight congestion. They were brought together by the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI).

Martha Kelly, the city’s chief traffic engineer, told the group that Cincinnati has seen a tremendous increase in truck traffic and cannot keep adding to highway volume. One of the solutions being examined is to add a fourth regional railroad freight consolidation facility, where containers are loaded off and on railcars by giant cranes. CSX and Norfolk Southern each have one of these hubs in Queensgate, and Norfolk Southern also has one in Sharonville. At the latter facility, some days there are 60 to 70 trucks idling or backed up onto city streets, waiting hours to load or unload freight, reported Adam Short of Mason Dixon Intermodal.

The group is studying a possible a public-private mix of funding for such a facility — a new strategy that helped build a similar rail freight hub in Texas.

A new Tristate facility should be built in Butler County, believes John Fonner, executive director of the county’s Transportation Improvement District. Land is cheaper and more plentiful there, and it would add a much needed economic shot in the arm, he notes.

In February, his agency completed a $100,000 study, funded through OKI, that showed a new rail freight consolidation facility could mean up to 842,000 containers of international and domestic freight would cycle through the region by 2030.

Sounds like a lot more noise and traffic stopped at railroad crossings. But it also smells like money.

Businesses want to locate near railroad off-loading hubs because of the cheaper, timely transportation options, says Howard Jackson, a partner in Midd-Cities Development. He attracted businesses from Canada, Germany and Pennsylvania to a 60-acre site his firm redeveloped west of the AK Steel plant in Middletown. He has 17 cranes there to off-load freight from a CSX rail line serving the site.

Midd-Cities put $750,000 in new railroad switches, rails and equipment into that site, with the financial help of the Ohio Rail Commission. Now he’s considering doing the same thing to an Amberley Village property he owns.

Any new railroad hub “has to be a public-private partnership,” says Jackson. “Investing in rail facilities ultimately will reduce the cost of road maintenance,” he adds. “And it will make us more competitive as a region.”