Advocate sees opportunities for rail in NW OhioWritten by Duane Ramsey | | email@example.com
John Robert Smith, chairman of Transportation for America, told the audience at the 2013 Passenger Rail Forum on Oct. 7 that there is hope for rail transportation in Northwest Ohio.
“I see tremendous opportunity for rail transportation in Toledo and northern Ohio. You need to create a vision to inspire the community, making the impossible possible. Leaders need to support that vision for transportation,” Smith said at the Toledo Club.
“Passenger rail is economic development. Don’t let the negative voices control your vision,” said Smith, who also serves as senior policy adviser for Smart Growth America.
Smith spoke to the group about the power of rail station renovation as a way of revitalizing communities. He knows from experience as mayor of Meridian, Miss., where a traditional Union Station was rebuilt into a multimodal facility 20 years ago.
“Quality design is critical for impact on the community,” said Smith, who reported that Meridian’s Union Station now hosts 250 events attracting 300,000 visitors annually.
The station renovation project helped to generate $135 million in private development to revitalize Meridian’s downtown. That included facelifts for historic buildings, the renovation of City Hall and development of Dumont Plaza, a gathering place for the community.
Smith said it also helped bring the restoration of the historic opera house in Meridian to create the Riley Center, a state-of-the-art performing arts and conference facility for Mississippi State University (MSU).
Smith said it also brought about improvements in public housing and a public transit system of buses, vans and trolley cars.
Smith continued his discussion of passenger rail transportation with a local panel that included Paul Toth, president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority; Bill Thomas, CEO of the Downtown Toledo Development Corporation; and Jerry Wicks, director of the Ohio Higher Education Rail Network.
“We have a great train station. We’re getting more people living and walking Downtown and creating some connectivity with the train station,” Thomas said before asking Smith, “What’s the best way to jumpstart the revitalization of the station?”
“There is a real disconnect to the Downtown, where you have some great buildings. Selling it to your own people is the hardest part. Share your vision better with the community,” Smith answered.
“Where do the freight railroads sit on high-speed passenger rail?” Toth asked.
“The freights are always going to resist high-speed rail and it’s [because of] their right of way. Acquisition of right of way and land capacity for rail infrastructure development is the key,” Smith replied.
“We’re trying to bring the universities together to meet their transportation needs with collaboration, partnerships and shared resources. They need systematic, reliable transportation,” Wicks said about his organization’s goals.
Smith said that the university was not involved 20 years ago but MSU now has a conference center in Meridian. Passenger rail can serve students by providing transportation for them, he said.
“We continue to focus on what our future is all about in Toledo and Northwest Ohio,” Toth said.
“It’s all about the people who are served by transportation. It’s critical to engage for future generations,” Smith said.
Smith toured the Toledo area and met with local leaders before speaking at the forum. He met with Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, who attended the forum and with the transportation committee of the Bowling Green City Council.
The forum is an annual meeting, where transportation advocates discuss issues involving the development of passenger rail service in Ohio, presented by the Northwest Ohio Passenger Rail Association (NOPRA) and Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments (TMACOG).
“We continue a dialogue to move passenger rail forward in our region and nation. It’s very important to our region since Toledo continues to have the busiest passenger station in Ohio,” said Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak, who moderated the forum.
“Change is happening. It’s a painful and ugly process but it is needed. This is why it is so critical now,” said Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association based in Chicago.
Harnish discussed the multistate Northern Corridor Initiative created to increase passenger rail service in several states, including Ohio.
Tim Porter, chairman of NOPRA, which supports the Northern Corridor Initiative, said we need a “next step” for Toledo and Cleveland to build the corridor rail service across northern Ohio.
Porter presented Harnish with a check for $8,000 to support that effort. Those funds included contributions from the City of Toledo, Lucas County, Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, The Andersons Rail Group, TMACOG and NOPRA.
“We all work together as we have common goals,” said Ronald Sheck, chairman of All Aboard Ohio, a statewide organization that advocates high-speed rail.
Sheck, who introduced Smith as the keynote speaker, first met him while traveling in the southeast when Smith was mayor of Meridian.
Tags: Bill Thomas, Downtown Toledo Development Corporation, Jerry Wicks, John Robert Smith, Northwest Ohio Passenger Rail Association, Ohio Higher Education Rail Network, Paul Toth, Smart Growth America, Tim Porter, Tina Skeldon Wozniak, Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments, Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, Transportation for America