July 30, 2014

Elyria
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Commuter rail study for moving forward

LORAIN — As the Jet Express took off from its dock on Wednesday at the Black River Landing as a symbol of what progress in Lorain looks like, backers of a Northeast Ohio commuter rail project announced they are sailing toward the next step in their venture.

Officials have raised enough money to access federal funds for a required study of transportation alternatives ranging from buses to rapid-transit trains and are ready to open bids for the analysis, Lorain County Commissioner Betty Blair said.

The Northeast Ohio Area-wide Coordinating Agency provided the last piece of the funding puzzle needed to access $343,000 in Federal Transportation Administration money secured for such a study two years ago by U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Copley Twp. The local match was $70,000 and NOACA provided 10 percent, said Howard Maier, the agency’s executive director.

Typically, NOACA, which operates mostly with federal funds, cannot provide the match for more federal funds. However, Maier said the organization tapped its local discretionary fund to help fund the study.

“This is still not a slam dunk, but the alternatives analysis is the next phase,” he said.

The study, expected to cost about $414,000, will look at every method of transportation from Cleveland to Sandusky to determine if commuter rail service is most efficient, Blair said. It would set the stage for possibly obtaining a piece of the $13 billion federal stimulus package pledged to improve and expand passenger rail service in the U.S.

While the project is a long way from taking shape, Maier said Lorain officials must be commended for their efforts.

“It’s a major accomplishment on the part of the community,” he said. “Getting a federal earmark is substantial, and raising the local match is not easy. For Lorain County, which has many other problems, to look to the future like this is inspirational.”

Getting this project moving has been a joint effort because so many saw the potential in the project, said West Shore Commuter Rail Task Force Steering Committee member Patrick Petrigan.

“We now have support from Sandusky to the Downtown Cleveland Alliance and all points in between,” he said.

Wednesday’s announcement was made aboard the Jet Express, which docks just a stone’s throw from the Black River Landing, a local destination that at one time boasted more than a dozen commercial rail lines. Now just one track remains, and Blair said, “We want a train on those tracks.”

The train would be a welcome complement to the Jet Express, which has brought back ferry service to Lorain.

The rail task force was formed earlier this year from a merger of the Northern Ohio Commuter Rail Coalition and West Shore Commuter Rail, each of which has pushed commuter rail service for Sandusky, Vermilion, Lorain and Cleveland.

The commuter train would most likely use existing Norfolk Southern railroad tracks from Sandusky to the West Park station of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, according to Phil Copeland, a civil engineer and Elyria resident who serves as regional coordinator for All Aboard Ohio, a nonprofit group working to improve public transportation and passenger rail service throughout Ohio.

The 60-odd-mile corridor would carry morning and afternoon commuters to and from work and passengers to area attractions at other times of the day, according to rail consultant Brian McCann.

“This project is not over,” he said. “This is not the end but merely the end of the beginning.”

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.