Transportation, part 2, the city of Lorain

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 . . .

Transportation, part 1, historical retrospective

Way back when the country was first being settled, and travel over land was difficult, the highways were the waterways.  Settlements were most dense along navigable waterways.  Lorain, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Toledo are examples of cities that lie alongside navigable waterways.  Shipping from Cincinnati down the Ohio to the Mississippi and down to New Orleans was pretty quick.  From New Orleans, freight could be shipped up the Atlantic Seaboard.  This was a lot easier than hauling freight over the Appalachian Mountains.  Once iron ore was located in large quantities in the region surrounding Lake Superior, the steel industry fueled the growth of Northeast Ohio, as ore flowed into Lake Erie ports to converge with coal from nearby Southeast Ohio, West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania.  Once canals and locks were added to the Great Lakes, the Lake Erie ports, via the Saint Lawrence Seaway, were closer to European ports than were the major ports along the Eastern Seaboard (due to the curvature of the Earth’s surface), providing this area with an advantage when it came to exporting goods.

Land transportation kept improving, however, with the construction of the National Road that led from Wheeling WV through towns like Cambridge, Zanesville, Columbus, and Springfield before crossing the state line into Richmond IN.  At the heyday of canals, about 1830, railroads were first being pioneered.  In the 1870’s to the beginning of the 20th century, railroads were extremely important to shipping.  Towns that lay along crossroads or canals that were bypassed by the railroad lines had their growth stunted.  Paved roads eventually eclipsed the railroads as the automobile industry took off, especially after more of the middle class were able to purchase cars.  For awhile, railroads and ocean-going vessels were still preferred methods of shipping huge amounts of freight, but with the advent of modern-day interstate highways, semi-trucks, and the recent predominance of just-in-time production schedules that keeps inventory levels low (thus allowing for smaller shipments), over-the-road shipping has scaled the heights to become king of the mountain.

Now settlements sprawl from interchanges along limited-access divided highways.  For a while, since automobile use grew year after year after year, towns like Fremont, Norwalk, Sandusky, Elyria, and Lorain were choosing to ease the congestion of their downtowns by diverting through-traffic along newly constructed bypasses.  Bypasses worked so well that traffic was indeed diverted from downtown, and businesses migrated from downtown to the outskirts to be near the bypass.  Luckily for major cities, like Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati, the interstates did manage to cross into the more central sections of those cities, although those inner cities still have to compete with the outerbelts.  Water transportation, while now slower, is still cheap for hauling huge amounts of freight, but now there are supertankers hauling freight across the oceans.  Guess what?  Supertankers don’t fit through the locks of the Welland Canal that links Lake Erie with Lake Ontario, neither are supertankers able to navigate the Saint Lawrence.  When it comes to shipping grain, coal, steel, and commodities like that which are shipped by the megatons, the Great Lakes ports are no longer as efficient as ocean ports.

It used to be that, pound for pound, hauling freight by air was expensive.  But with just-in-time production schedules, not a lot of pounds have to be shipped anymore.  In this instant gratification society that has an ever greater demand for overnight parcel delivery, organizations like UPS that you ordinarily think of as ground carriers, due to the ubiquitous brown delivery trucks, are actually hauling more and more parcels by airplane.  It used to be that corporate headquarters needed to be located conveniently in relation to an airport because business leaders had to be able to use air travel to keep track of their far-flung empires.  This is still true, even though telecommunications advances have allowed business leaders to stay home a lot more often.  But now, distribution centers and manufacturers also need to be conveniently located near airports because freight is being shipped more and more through the air.  In fact, distribution centers and manufacturers do very well when they are at an intermodal hub of air, rail, road, and water transportation.

To be continued at a future date . . .