ELYRIA — The county’s long-awaited passenger rail platform project, which would replace the current Amtrak train station, might be in jeopardy.
The project, which has been in the works for years finally seemed to be gaining some steam when the Lorain County commissioners announced they were accepting proposals for a construction manager for the project and hoped to break ground soon.
On Wednesday, though, during the commissioners’ weekly meeting, County Administrator Jim Cordes said there have been difficulties.
The platform would be at the county’s Transportation Center in downtown Elyria, at the former New York Central train station.
Cordes said a big reason why the project may fall through is a lack of cooperation from the city of Elyria, but Elyria Mayor Holly Brinda said Cordes’ allegation is “ridiculous.”
The county asked the city for five variances on the project, and the city approved four of them. The fifth was a request from the county to allow the platform to exist without access to public restrooms.
“We asked that there be no bathrooms in that structure,” Cordes said. “It’s a structure that’s only going to be used two hours a day, if that. There are currently no bathrooms available at the current structure.”
Commissioner Ted Kalo said the restrooms would be used only by people waiting for trains about 3 a.m.
“That leaves us with quite a problem, and we need to discuss that more fully,” Cordes said. “Between Norfolk Southern and now this, I’m beginning to seriously question the viability of completing this project.”
Brinda believes the county may be using the city as a scapegoat.
“I think they’re looking for a reason to get out of the project,” she said. “To say that you’re going to let a restroom jeopardize a $14 million project is absolutely ridiculous, especially since the city of Elyria has said it would be willing to provide assistance with the building, operation and maintenance of the restroom.”
Brinda said the State Board of Building Standards also did not approve the county’s requested variance to forgo bathrooms.
“It wasn’t just the city of Elyria that denied the request,” she said.
Cordes said he was frustrated by the lack of cooperation from the city on the matter.
“The frustrating thing is that I believe if we had gotten the variance here in Elyria, we probably would have gotten it from the state,” he said. “We didn’t get if from the city, and the state just passed right by it. I’m aggravated by that, to be quite honest, completely aggravated.”
Brinda said the city has been a big proponent of the project, which it believes could be an economic development driver for the downtown area. Still, she said access to restrooms is important.
“We believe that it’s important for people getting off a train to have the ability to use the restroom, both for personal and safety reasons,” Brinda said. “There aren’t other places to use a restroom there. People need a place to use the restroom. It’s part of the state building code. The city of Elyria agrees.”
The county said the restroom issue adds to an already “costly project.”
“The bathroom issue is huge,” Cordes said. “It’s significant more cost, and there has to be more build put in, which is going to take up the rest of the parking lot. Then there’s the ongoing maintenance.”
Brinda said she believes the cost to add restrooms is about $20,000. She also said the city has offered to maintain the restrooms. She also said the city has asked to sit down with the county to talk about the issues, but has never been granted such a meeting.
“That makes me wonder if the intent all along was to not complete this project,” Brinda said. “It’s a travesty that the transportation center in Elyria isn’t used as a transportation center.”
Brinda also said the county could just open up the Transportation Center to allow passengers to use the restroom facilities there. She said the city would consider staffing the building during those times.
Cordes also said the county has had numerous problems in dealing with Norfolk Southern, which owns the railway, along with Amtrak, including indemnification agreements on the project, the length of the lease of the property and maintenance of the facility.
“I’ve worked in some frustrating environments before, but working with the train people is the most frustrating environment I’ve ever been in,” Cordes said. “We jump over one hurdle and they bring another, but they don’t just bring another one, they raise it and bring another one.”
Commissioner Matt Lundy agreed.
“Railroads are very good at being obstructionists,” Lundy said. “I’ve dealt with them on many occasions, and I think we’ve tried to be reasonable and fair in our approach with this whole project. Just when you think you’ve made some progress, they make sure you take about 10 steps back again. You always have to have a willing partner when you try to get things done. To even think they’ve been a willing partner would be a false statement.”
Cordes said the county is working toward completing the project, but he has a hard time seeing a way for it to be completed. He told the commissioners he will be talking with them more on the matter in coming public meetings.