In response to my post that launched this transportation series, Brandon Rutherford asked a perfectly good question about how much importance to attach to transportation infrastructure. Sometimes a site, at first glance, appears to be sufficiently connected, yet the site remains vacant or underutilized. I didn’t fully respond to Mr. Rutherford’s comment, but I hope to fully address it over the course of this transportation series. Mr. Rutherford cited the specific example of the former location of a Ford assembly plant in Lorain, so let me use that as a springboard to share a collection of my thoughts about transportation in Lorain.
So here is Lorain, that had it good as a port on Lake Erie when water transport was best. Lorain was also well situated when railroads and surface roads were built, because, in relation to US geography, commerce between the Northeast US and the Midwest, where the bulk of the population lived, was compressed as it passed through Ohio because Lake Erie is the southernmost of the Great Lakes. When freight travels from Boston or New York to Chicago, it can only go west as far as Buffalo and then it has to dip south through Ohio on its way to Chicago. Just like today where I-80 and I-90 converge and follow the same route, or nearly so, for hundreds of miles, this was true of railroad networks and US highways, like US 6 and US 20, before interstates. Ohio was a conduit for all this East Coast-Midwest transit. The emergence of Detroit as the Motor City only helped, as it added a longitudinal dimension to shipping through Ohio. Lorain had many things going for it, and Lorain thrived until the 1970’s. Since the 1970 Census, Lorain’s population has declined.
Northern Ohio, including Lorain, had an excellent location for many years, as there was a time when two-thirds of the population of the United States and half of the population of Canada lived within 500 miles of the boundaries of Ohio. Though the US has experienced southward and westward migration and Canada has seen more growth in the Vancouver area, Ohio is still very well situated among the most densely populated areas of North America north of the Mexican border. In terms of sheer geography and demography, Ohio is still a great location for distribution centers, manufacturers, and corporate headquarters. So, no matter what has gone wrong that led to the urban decline in Lorain, there is still a lot of potential for recovery.
Transportation has so much to do with the decline of Lorain. Supertankers cannot travel on the Great Lakes, so freight moved upon the water has to take place in smaller vessels than are available elsewhere. Lorain is not conveniently linked to Cleveland Hopkins Int’l Airport (Lorain isn’t even well linked to the county’s airport in New Russia Township). Most noticeably, limited access divided highways bypassed Lorain instead of penetrating it. Is it any wonder that business has dwindled as Lorain’s transportation advantages have disappeared?
By virtue of existing highways, Lorain is closely tied to Cleveland to the point that if Cleveland’s economy bottoms out, so does Lorain’s, and Lorain only prospers when Cleveland is also prospering. We need to branch out. We need to diversify. We need better connections with prospering, more diversified economies like that of Columbus. If we had a north-south highway that connected Lorain with I-71 at Ashland, commerce and innovation from Columbus could reach Lorain at the same rate that it reaches Cleveland. Right now, it is channeled up I-71 to Cleveland, and from there it is diffused slowly out to neighboring communities in concentric waves until finally it reaches Lorain, if it ever reaches Lorain at all. Lorain County has forecast a need for such a north-south corridor, but their proposal is to build it parallel to Quarry Road, cutting through the farmland of the western Lorain County townships.
I am fully aware that it costs less to build a highway through farmland than it is through developed areas, but to do so only heightens the problems we are trying to eradicate. When we think of the costs of building a highway, we must think beyond mere construction costs to the costs of the consequences of where we build. For example, it may have cost less to build the Ohio Turnpike between Lorain and Elyria rather than through the heart of either town, but what has it cost in terms of shoveling money into Lorain and Elyria to revitalize them when the revitalization never takes hold? What kind of a money pit did we create when we bypassed the already urbanized areas? And what about the sprawl that will only increase if a north-south highway is built parallel to and in the vicinity of Quarry Road? Will that suck more of the life blood out of the communities already in existence? I know that they have talked about this in Oberlin, and Oberlin is fully aware that a highway in such a location will have negative repercussions for Oberlin’s downtown commerce. Right now, the lands that are most heavily commercially zoned in the western townships along a north-south artery stretch alongside SR 58. I say: Let’s make SR 58 the limited-access divided highway, with frontage roads alongside, so that we do not kill off the commerce that already exists along SR 58 to transplant it into the cornfields near Quarry Road. Why create more abandoned businesses? If the new highway runs exactly where SR 58 is now, wouldn’t that buttress the businesses that already exist there? Isn’t that what we want? Besides, those that live out in the vicinity of Quarry Road probably like the rural nature of their environs and would prefer to keep it that way. When the highway reaches Wellington and Oberlin, I have ideas on how to keep the downtown intact, especially buildings of historical significance, without building bypasses on the edge of town that would kill those downtowns, but I do not wish to elaborate on that here. I wish to focus more in depth on Lorain.
In this age of instant gratification, who wants to wend their way through all of Lorain’s stoplights, railroad crossings, and 20 mph school zones on crampingly narrow and potholed surface streets to reach downtown? A “smart” transportation system would make a lot of sense. In chronically congested places such as Los Angeles, they have installed “smart” transportation systems that use cameras and sensors to gauge traffic flow on city streets and highways. This ties into a nerve center where the flow of traffic across the transportation grid can be diagrammed. Signals can then be sent to traffic lights to optimize the timing to allow for the best traffic flow, to flashing message signs along the highway that alert motorists to traffic conditions and alternate routes, and to police officers on highway patrols and street patrols to mobilize them to bottlenecks where needed. But we need more than “smart” transportation to get people downtown.
Once this new SR 58 highway reaches an interchange with SR 2 and SR 254, I want to make it more likely that traffic will flow through Lorain closer to its downtown. Right now, SR 2 traffic flows eastward to where it converges with I-90 and heads to Cuyahoga County. There are some major bends in the existing highway. Let’s take advantage of these bends in the existing highway–we can build a shorter one. If we draw a line straight across from the SR 2 interchange with SR 58 to the I-90 interchange with SR 611, we will have built a straighter highway that crosses the Black River south of E. 21st St. but north of the steel mills on E. 28th St. That will put traffic flow much closer to downtown. The Colorado industrial park will also have much better access. East-west through traffic would prefer to flow through Lorain if it is faster than taking the existing route. The straighter we can make the highway, the bigger the advantage.
With this new cross-town highway built, what if we took SR 57 from the Ohio Turnpike interchange northward and turned it into a limited access divided highway that connected with the cross-town highway? Wouldn’t that allow more motorists to head toward downtown? Wouldn’t it also bolster South Lorain to have this major artery flowing through it? Wouldn’t the two highways combined bolster the industrial area that includes the steel mills? Wouldn’t it vastly improve Lorain’s access to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport?
Consider the following map. Existing surface streets are shown in yellow. Existing limited access highways in the vicinity of Lorain are shown in magenta. The additional highways I’ve just proposed in the preceding paragraphs are shown in red.
My proposal is just one way in which Lorain could address its outdated transportation infrastructure. If others have alternative proposals that address Lorain’s transportation deficiencies, I’d love to see some additional debate on the topic, but so far, I haven’t heard a peep out of anyone about any alternative proposals, so I’ll continue to promote my own proposal in order to fill the vacuum.
LCCC once hosted a community forum that talked about Lorain County’s future based on trends reflected in the most recent Census data. When they talked about comparing the fastest growing urban areas in the country with those that were declining, they said that the growing cities were the most DRIVABLE! Get it? DRIVABLE! Lorain is not drivable. Not yet, anyway. Yes, what I propose is expensive, but it’s worth it if it achieves what we design it to do. A cheaper highway through nowhere gets us . . . nowhere. As an illustration, the Flats in Cleveland are difficult to drive to, yet the city is constantly fighting blight there. A few years ago we heard about a much-ballyhooed revitalization of the Flats. Only properties were fixed up–the Flats were not made more drivable. Guess what? There will never cease to be more calls for urban renewal of Cleveland’s Flats so long as the urban renewals undertaken are nothing but cosmetic facelifts without addressing drivability. How much money does it cost to pay for the same urban renewal over and over and over again? Add that into the cost of a highway through nowhere. Urban renewal efforts in Lorain will fail to take hold so long as those efforts only result in cosmetic facelifts.
I will have more to say about paying for the expenses of transportation projects in future installments of this series, and I’ll branch out to addressing the transportation deficiencies of other communities such as Elyria, Norwalk, Sandusky, Tiffin, and Fostoria, as well. I also want to address other modes of transportation besides highways, though I’ve already posted some thoughts pertaining to passenger rail here.
To be continued at a future date . . .
December 22, 2009 at 1:51 am
I drew a map based on my thoughts. It focuses on Commercial and Industrial areas.
Visually, I like these 2 images:
with the alignments of the parkway and pedestrian areas:
and cool pedestrian bridges as needed:
December 22, 2009 at 5:21 pm
Those are some cool pics, Mr. Stipe, but the upgrades I am advocating for are not necessarily cosmetic. I want limited access divided highways crisscrossing Lorain that motorists can navigate at 65 mph, with widened arterial surface streets at the highway off-ramps. Speed is of the essence.
December 23, 2009 at 3:04 am
I was thinking along the lines of a 45 MPH limited access 4 lane parkway system. Something similar to rt 57 though Elyria & the Cleveland Shoreway.
Your plan is more like I-490 that just dumps onto E.55th.
December 23, 2009 at 3:37 pm
I hope you can look beyond NEO for parallels to what I’m proposing for Lorain (because, frankly, NEO is currently–economically speaking–one of the armpits of the nation), but if we are to use Northeast Ohio for our comparisons, then I must point out that Cleveland has, in addition to I-490, I-90, I-77, and I-71, with I-480 skimming it’s southern city limits. And the highways within Lorain?
Nothing. That’s my point.
As for what you propose, Lorain has made feeble attempts at such landscaping, such as Tower Boulevard, but guess what? It can’t compensate for the lack of highways.
Those 45 mph parkways are for bedroom communities, not for a regional industrial, commercial, and employment hub. Sheffield Lake is a bedroom community. Lorain is a central city within a standard metropolitan statistical area. I hope Lorainites can seize upon that concept. Part of the reason that Lorain continues to decay and will continue to decay is that it is not properly outfitted to perform its appointed function.
December 23, 2009 at 3:42 pm
I will say this on behalf of 45 mph parkways–they can be useful, particularly at a highway off-ramp into a residential area.
But the highway is what makes them more useful.
January 5, 2010 at 6:20 pm
[…] Transportation, part 2, the city of Lorain […]
October 28, 2013 at 12:00 am
I caught your first part some time ago and thought it was excellent. I just found part 2 and offer the following thoughts. If you have not been to Milan OH, go there and visit the Edison homestead. The day Thomas A. Edison was born, the valley behind his family home was the site of more than 25 grain elevators and many dry docks specializing in building lake grain freighters. Shortly after Edison’s birth a group of businessmen showed up and suggested that the town fathers donate land to their new business venture – a railroad. The town fathers discussed the proposal and determined that they had the elevators, the dry docks and the lake freighters – they didn’t need no railroad. The businessmen went to a little village just east of Ohio City and Cleveland donated the land to tie the railroad to the grain and lake traffic. By the time Edison turned age 8 the family left Milan which then had no operating elevators, no operating dry docks and no grain business. Lorain lost out in that same 19th century deal. The lake and railroad business shifted to Cleveland and getting it back is prohibitively expensive. So, where to go now? Go after high tech industries by improving Lorain suitability in terms of life style, housing, shopping, commuting and recreation. Adding significant amounts of rail service is more expensive than adding highways. Adding highways is more expensive than adding high speed internet services, office parks, marinas, campgrounds, recreational venues, housing and residential services. You have to maximize what you have – which is an eroded tax base and aged industrial brownfield real estate – while avoiding bank busting infrastructure projects that are solutions looking for problems. I respect that you have a fair amount of expertise but I also have a fair amount of practical experience in transportation (45 years in motor and rail transportation), community development (six years on Board of Summit Co. Port Authority) and transportation regulation (4 years as ICC District Supervisor and 6 years on Surface Transportation Board’s Railroad Shippers Transportation Advisory Council). Lorain has structrual problems that will not be cured solely with transportation improvements. Short term I would focus on developing the area into the perfect place for Clevelanders to weekend, summer, play and live. Develop a long term plan then implement a series of short term improvements that maximize your investment and produce tax revenues to achieve that long term plan.
October 28, 2013 at 6:50 pm
Thank you for your thoughtful insights. I respect your expertise. But I wonder, shouldn’t a transportation grid upgrade at least be on the drawing board as a goal to shoot for? There is no such drawing board. Not even the Port Authority has such a drawing board. With no goal, there can be no movement toward it. Therefore, Lorain drifts and the decay continues. Sprucing up real estate to attract Clevelanders for recreation sounds nice, but Lorain truly is an out-of-the-way place. If Clevelanders are willing to go off the beaten path for recreation, then picturesque Geauga County or the lakefront stretch between Sandusky and Port Clinton may be more appealing. Sandusky Bay is a great location for water-skiing. The Lake Erie Islands are already homes-away-from-homes for the upper crust of the Cleveland area, and the fishing is good. If Clevelanders are looking for a place in Lorain County to commute from daily, then Avon is the most prime location. Certainly, I think upgrades in utility infrastructure are important and would precede new road construction, but there are some modest transportation projects that could be pursued in the near-term that would make Lorain more accessible to outsiders, such as grade separation along arterial streets so that drivers do not encounter railroad crossings. I had a third installment of my transportation proposals planned that dealt more with Lorain’s connections to air transportation, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. This blog is on the back burner until after I finish my thesis for my M.A. degree. The main point of this reply is merely that if nothing is planned, nothing will get underway and nothing will get accomplished.
Thanks for sharing valuable advice. More input such as yours might help Lorain’s civic leaders think more clearly about long-term planning on a bigger scale than just developing property on this parcel or that parcel on a piecemeal basis, especially if such input were more conspicuously seen and heard.
January 7, 2014 at 2:27 pm
Back when Tim Davis was Summit County Executive the Northeast Ohio Economic Development Board was a multi-county (Columbiana, Geauga, Portage, Stark, Summit, and Trumbull) that was working on using the river port at East Liverpool, the Youngstown Regional Airport (and the adjacent USAF Reserve base), and the Akron-Canton Airport to compete with Cleveland. Part of that was tying the river port to the freight air service at Youngstown, the passenger air service at Akron-Canton and the industrial property at the Ravenna Arsenal by using the Conrail Freedom Secondary track that we purchased through the Akron Regional Transit Authority. The logical operator of that rail line would be the Wheeling and Lake Erie and Larry Parsons, the owner of the WLE, was interested in participating. After Tim Davis left the area the plan languished in limbo; he was the moving force. Since the WLE operates out of Detroit and connects to the tracks of CSX and NS and CN and owns the old ABB, Larry Parsons would be a great partner for your proposals. Having worked with Larry for a number of years I can tell you from personal experience that he is extremely community minded and absolutely trustworthy – that is not something that I can say about many in the railroad business. I worked for a huge wholesale lumber business with a sister company that was the largest contractor yard in Ohio when Parsons purchased the WLE. The service provided by the WLE was head and shoulders about what Conrail passed off as service. If you want to add transportation planning into your mix – and I agree that you need to for long term development – do yourself a favor and talk to Larry Parsons.