November 26, 2014

Elyria
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Interchange heads toward showdown

AVON — Sabers are rattling over whether to build a proposed interchange off Interstate 90 in Avon.

Cuyahoga County officials are worried the interchange will increase urban sprawl and drain money from Cleveland and Cuyahoga County communities.

They’re threatening to vote against the plan when it goes before the full board of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency on Friday.

Avon and Lorain County officials are threatening to abandon NOACA and strike out on their own if the vote goes against the interchange.

Neither side seems inclined to back down.

“Everybody’s got an atom bomb,” said Howard Maier, executive director of the metropolitan planning agency, which serves five counties.

Brinksmanship

Last week, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim Hagan and Bay Village Mayor Debbie Sutherland gave Avon an ultimatum — agree to a revenue-sharing deal or the combined votes of Cuyahoga County would come down against the project.

Lorain County Commissioner Betty Blair, a longtime NOACA board member and supporter, is outraged by the threat.

“There’s no doubt about it, we’re being held hostage,” she said.

Blair said the ultimatum made her much more inclined to join other Lorain County officials in their threats to withdraw from NOACA if the interchange is voted down, particularly since funding for the interchange will come from Avon and local businesses, not NOACA dollars.

“It bothers me when other entities feel they’re entitled to something when they’re contributing nothing,” she said.

But in their statement, Jackson, Hagan and Sutherland insist that without a revenue-sharing plan, the negative economic repercussions will be severe, possibly including increased retail and office competition, more wear and tear on roads and greater urban sprawl.

“It is clear to me that approval of this project must be contingent upon a revenue-sharing plan that would help mitigate the impact of migrating business and infrastructure improvements in the I-90 corridor from Cleveland to Elyria,” Sutherland wrote in a separate statement.

Avon Mayor Jim Smith said he’s talked with Cuyahoga County officials about the possibility of revenue-sharing, but nothing they’ve pitched to him will work for Avon yet. And, he said, he wants to see a final offer in writing.

The threat to withdraw from NOACA is very real, Blair said, adding that the county’s legal experts already are examining how the county could do so.

Lorain County Commissioner Ted Kalo said the revenue-sharing request is unprecedented. Lorain County is getting no revenue from Westlake’s Crocker Park or a project connecting I-90 and Interstate 480 by linking Crocker Road and Stearns Road, he said.

Breaking NOACA

Lorain County isn’t the only NOACA member that has considered departing in the face of what critics say is a Cuyahoga County-focused organization.

Geauga County Commissioner Craig Albert said the feud over the Avon interchange, which he supports, isn’t enough to force him to pull his county out of NOACA, but he’s thought about it.

“We’ve talked about what’s the point of being in NOACA, but we’ve never talked about leaving, because what’s the alternative?” he said.

Kalo said the county could form its own metropolitan planning organization, link up with other counties that have grown disillusioned with NOACA or even join the Erie County Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Steve Poggiali, transportation planner for the Erie County MPO, said although his organization handles planning in the part of Vermilion that falls in Lorain County, he hasn’t discussed a merger with Lorain County officials.

Such a merger would only make sense, he said, if Lorain County were to bring additional federal highway dollars with it.

“It would be something that I think we would have to look at,” Poggiali said.

NOACA’s Maier said if Lorain County were to leave, it would create a logistical nightmare for projects already in the pipeline.

“It would be a lot of heartache for a lot of people and cost a lot of money,” he said.

What’s at stake?

Smith said the development in the area of the $19 million proposed interchange will include some commercial, but mostly it will focus on industrial and office space. And, he said, it will help alleviate traffic congestion on Avon’s roads.

Among the chief proponents of the new interchange — which could open as early as 2009 if approved — is the Cleveland Clinic, which plans to build a 170,000-square-foot medical campus in the area, regardless of whether the interchange is built.

All that development will generate a lot of tax revenue, but many — including Elyria Mayor Bill Grace — fear it will come at the expense of places like Midway Mall or Westlake’s Crocker Park.

But that’s not what an economic impact study, requested by opponents of the plan, concluded.

“(The interchange will) positively benefit the city of Avon and Lorain County and will not materially affect either the region or the nearby communities,” the study concluded.

In a response from the city of Cleveland to the study, officials said the interchange and other infrastructure improvements for outlying areas will bleed “the region’s core of its strength and vitality.”

Smith rejects those arguments.

“Don’t blame me for the demise of an economy in another city,” he said.

Cleveland’s response also says that urban sprawl affects the region by weakening the vibrancy of the central city in an area and making it less attractive to developers. But the consultants who prepared the study disagreed.

“If the interchange is built, it is likely to make the land near the new exit more competitive for some investment projects, however, the construction does not make any other location in the region less attractive,” the study’s authors wrote.

Friday’s vote

Kalo said he’s been counting the votes of NOACA’s 38-member board and, right now, it appears too close to call.

But opponents do have an advantage in the form of a weighted vote that will count each of the Cuyahoga County commissioners’ votes as four, a practice that survived a legal review requested at last month’s NOACA meeting. With other opponents, that could be enough to shelve the project.

Even so, Kalo said he doesn’t think the proposal is dead — yet.

“It’s a dead heat,” he said.

Kalo said the weighted vote could have negative repercussions.

“If Cuyahoga County needs to use a weighted vote to tell Lorain County what’s best for Lorain County, it’s very short-sighted,” he said.

Smith predicts bad things for the future of NOACA if the weighted vote is used to shoot down the interchange.

“Probably in two years, it will end up being (NOACA’s) demise,” he said.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.