By Kevin Kelley
A study of ways to improve transportation for the region between Cleveland and Sandusky is expected to be completed by the end of December, according to officials involved in the Westshore Corridor Transportation Project.
Project leaders held meetings in Cuyahoga, Lorain and Erie counties earlier this month to inform the public on its status and solicit feedback on the region’s transportation needs.
Rail advocacy groups such as All Aboard Ohio have, in recent years, sought public funds to establish a commuter rail line on tracks owned by Norfolk Southern. The commuter rail line is one of several possible solutions that will be studied in the alternatives analysis, the first phase required to obtain funding under the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program.
The FTA requires proof, by means of the study, that any project it funds will actually be used by significant numbers of people before it commits to providing money.
Tim Rosenberger, supervising planner with Parsons Brinckerhoff, the engineering firm conducting the study, said the final solution could consist of a commuter rail line, commuter bus service, bus rapid transit, or some combination of the three.
The project could also be launched in phases, Rosenberger said, with vehicles initially running from Cleveland to Lorain, with service to Vermilion and Sandusky being added later.
“This allows you to build up a market for the service you’re creating over time by putting in lesser service and then adding to it over time as the market builds up,” he said at a Sept. 14 public meeting at St. John Medical Center in Westlake.
The final decision will be made by officials from Lorain County, Erie County and NOACA, which represents Cuyahoga County.
The Parsons Brinckerhoff study is being paid for through a $343,000 federal grant and a match of $85,750 collected from various regional entities, including NOACA, RTA, the city of Avon and the Lorain Port Authority.
The FTA must approve of whichever transportation mode is decided on. Rosenberger said the FTA considers a proposal’s cost effectiveness, environmental benefits, and effect on land use in the region. The FTA, Rosenberger said, favors projects that will promote transit-oriented development; that is, high density, mixed-used development that is easily accessible from a transit station. In contrast, much of the recent development in the area has been characterized by sprawl, he said. That’s the first of two big challenges any Westshore transportation project would have to overcome, he said.
“This is the type of development that has to start prevailing in this corridor going forward if we’re going to be able to build a project like this, and we’re going to be able to support a project like this, and if FTA is going to give us the go-ahead,” he said.
Rosenberger suggested communities in the corridor make zoning changes to encourage more transit-oriented development.
The second big challenge is to find a local funding source, as the FTA would provide no more than 50 percent of the money required to launch a project, Rosenberger said. RTA, which serves Cuyahoga County, has made significant cuts in service in recent years, he noted. And unlike RTA, which receives funds from the county sales tax, the transit agencies which service Lorain and Erie counties currently have no dedicated funding source, he said.
Yet to be decided is which agency would run any new service.
“Some agency is going to have to step up and take the lead,” Rosenberger said.
Even if commuter rail service is ultimately chosen as part of the solution, trains would initially only run at rush hour, Rosenberger said. And the service would have to be supported by robust local bus services bringing commuters to the rail stations, he added. The cost of additional bus service would have to be considered in analyzing which approach to take, he said.
The full process of obtaining FTA funding typically takes seven to 12 years, officials said.
Another obstacle to launching a rail service is reaching a formal agreement with Norfolk Southern, which owns the tracks in question. Officials working on the project said the railroad has expressed interest in permitting commuter service. However, Rosenberger said his experience has been that railroads rarely say no but instead want more information, and possibly payments to make improvements to the rail lines.
Despite the obstacles, Lorain County Commissioner Betty Blair remains a proponent of a commuter rail service. The tracks are already there, she said, adding that a decade-old study determined the region could support a commuter line.
“It’s a good project,” she said. People think nothing of funding road projects, she said. Why not also fund rail?”
FUNDRAISER: The Lorain County Community Alliance, a partner in the Westshore Commuter Transportation Project, has organized a fundraiser cruise on Lake Erie this evening from 6 to 8 p.m. On the Jet Express IV. The starts and ends at 421 Black River Lane in Lorain. Tickets cost $100 and can be purchased by calling Lorain County Commissioner Betty Blair’s office at (440) 329-5112.
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