City can learn from history when tackling railroad issues

By Harry McCawley

It’s been suggested that plans to reroute vehicular traffic around the western entrance to the city due to the anticipated increase in trains crossing Jonathan Moore Pike have become both pricey and complicated. That’s an understatement.

There are already a lot of zeros in cost estimates for the various options that have been studied so far, and anyone studying those options can get a headache trying to understand their proposed traffic flows.

There’s no question that something needs to be done. Columbus, a town of fewer than 50,000 people, has train-induced traffic jams at its western entrance that can tie motorists up for what seem like eternities, especially for those commuting to or from work. The scary aspect of the situation is that in the future one of those vehicles could be an ambulance carrying a patient in a medical emergency.

We’ve lived with this situation for several years, but plans to dramatically increase the number of railroad cars and their speed in the coming years has created a situation that has to be addressed.

The good news is that Columbus has a history of dealing with situations relating to train traffic. The bad news is that there were a lot of headaches that came with resolutions to the problems.

It should be noted that Columbus has a long history with trains, especially in and around the downtown area. Tracks once ran on Washington Street, and early in the 20th century, the front lawn for First Christian Church was a railroad switching station. The city was also a key junction in the old Inter-Urban railroad, a commuter line owned by local banker W.G. Irwin.

There are few remaining signs of that railroad history in downtown Columbus, but getting rid of them wasn’t easy. The experience that comes to mind for many longtime Columbus residents was part of the redevelopment of the downtown area in the early 1970s.

It was a mammoth undertaking that was to remake a downtown that had mostly been in place for close to a century. The centerpiece of the project was a commercial and public super-block stretching from Washington to Brown streets and bounded by Third and Fourth streets.

The complex to be known as Courthouse Center and The Commons was an effort to retain a retail presence in the downtown while affording the public a community gathering place. To improve business conditions, added parking was a critical need but so was the need to change the traffic flow on some downtown streets.

Standing in the way of those goals was the main line of Penn Central Railroad property that intersected Brown and Jackson streets diagonally as well as property designated for Lindsey Street at various points in the downtown area. To get that done, planners surmised that the tracks had to be moved next to but not intersecting Brown, Jackson or the new Lindsey Street.

Of all the elements associated with the redevelopment project, resolving the railroad property issue turned out to be the most vexing.

Initially the process seemed to move smoothly. Negotiations with Penn Central officials began in 1969 and the next year appeared headed to a successful completion when railroad officials and the redevelopment commission announced a tentative agreement by which the city would pay for the physical relocation and the railroad would supply engineering, landscaping and construction personnel.

That agreement was never finalized because late in 1970 Penn Central filed for bankruptcy. As a result the agreement was nullified, and planners were pushed back to Square 1. They didn’t stay there.

Eager to get the tracks moved but unable to work directly with Penn Central officials, Ben Bush, chairman of the redevelopment commission, set up a meeting with George Baker, who had been named bankruptcy trustee in the railroad case. Accompanying Bush was Charles Eliot, the commission’s executive director.

According to an account of the meeting written by Bush for the book “The Columbus Way,” Baker agreed to act as an adviser in getting the project back on track. In a piece of irony, Bush noted that Eliot and Baker were distant cousins.

The resolution seemed relatively simple. The commission and the railroad company agreed to swap land each owned with no money involved. Simple became difficult when it was determined that if the city were to be responsible for relocating the tracks, laws required that a bidding process be put in place, a step that would have caused a long delay in implementation.

The problem was settled with creation of a not-for-profit corporation named Columbus Municipal Services Inc. (Comserv for short), which would supply the funding, engineering and personnel to handle the relocation effort.

Incidentally, the idea for using Comserv as the agency for the project would surface three decades later with the creation of Columbus Downtown Inc. as the on-site agent for facilitating the Vision 2020 plan for yet another redevelopment of the downtown area.

There was a price tag the city was faced with on the heels of the railroad bankruptcy. The added costs came to $500,000, which required the city to issue a bond in the amount of $450,000 to meet the shortage.

That led to the development of another precedent setter that would be utilized more than three decades later. John Keach, then president of Home Federal Savings and Loan Association, led a door-to-door petition campaign that brought in more than 1,000 signatures in favor of the bond issue. The idea was revived around 2008 when organizers launched a similar campaign to gain support for a bond issue that helped pay for the new Commons.

In the end, the project moved to a successful conclusion. In December 1971 work was completed on the relocation of the tracks to the west, but that didn’t prevent other obstacles from being thrown up.

The next year Columbus businessman Tom Bixler, owner of a construction company around 11th and Jackson streets, brought work to a halt on relocation of spur railroad tracks near his business with a lawsuit claiming that money he was offered for his property was inadequate. He even staked a hand-lettered sign on the land ordering construction workers to “Stay Off.”

That matter, too, was settled, and the whole process was successfully completed in 1972.

I’m not sure that city leaders will have to jump through similar hoops as planning for the new traffic zone on the west side progresses, but should the need arise, Ben Bush — who dealt with the track relocation headaches of the 1970s — is available for consultation.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.