September 18, 2014

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Officials discuss preview rides for commuter rail

AVON LAKE — Local officials hope a preview ride aboard a commuter train could give the regional project the local and federal push it needs to make it a reality.

“That’s going to be the key ingredient,” said Kenneth Prendergast, director of research and communications for All Aboard Ohio of Lakewood. “Anybody that’s using commuter rail service is going to cut their commuter costs by two-thirds. The preview service would help them to realize that.”

Community leaders and officials from Lorain and Cuyahoga counties met Wednesday at the Avon Lake Public Library to discuss publicity, development and strategy for the commuter railway in the West Shore Corridor, which stretches from Cleveland to Vermilion.

Prendergast said commuters within the greater Cleveland area have the second-highest commuter costs in the nation, eating up more than a fifth of average household costs.

While a commuter rail service could still be a decade in the making, he said, a preview allowing people to ride the train could be up and running by 2009.

A similar preview was done in 2000 using existing tracks running near the Lake Erie shoreline.

“We still need to find out how much it will cost,” he said. “If it’s several days, it won’t be too expensive. If it’s several months, it’ll probably be around $500,000.”

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a transportation spending bill that would allocate $350,000 to review and study the commuter rail service.

Alternative funding sources, such as tax incremental financing, private funding and capital financing could help communities fund the overall multimillion-dollar investment, but the in-person preview might spur the support of local taxpayers.

“We need to be sure we have the political and residential support,” said Joe Calabrese, general manager for Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. “I’m not sure people (in Lorain County) would vote for it.”

Vince Urbin, Lorain County community development specialist, said creating an interactive Web site and video explaining the railway and how it would work could help secure more federal dollars.

Avon Lake Mayor Rob Berner said he supported the regional commuter system, but he questioned why Cuyahoga County officials — who have withheld their approval of an Interstate 90 interchange in Avon — are in favor of expediting a plan for trains and not vehicles.

“If this is a transportation improvement plan, are we going to have the support of Cuyahoga County when it comes to improvement outside Cuyahoga County?” Berner asked.

Lorain County Commissioner Betty Blair said after the meeting that the investment will run on a two-way street.

“The possibilities I heard today were very interesting,” she said. “There’s regionalism here."

Contact Stephen Szucs at 336-4016 or sszucs@chroniclet.com.