ELYRIA — The plan to bring passenger rail service back to downtown Elyria is stopped on the tracks for now, with city and Lorain County officials disagreeing over the reasons why.
After asking Mayor Holly Brinda to brief them on the project to bring Amtrak passenger service back to the city, Elyria City Council members promised Monday to make Lorain County commissioner’s phones ring with questions over why the plan has stalled.
The city and county promised five years ago to bring an Amtrak stop to the Lorain County Transportation and Community Center at 40 East Ave., using federal, city and county funds.
Nothing yet has been done, and both parties disagree on the reasons: Brinda said the county has not been willing to meet with city or state officials to work together, while county Commissioner Matt Lundy blamed the failure of the project on the demands of the railroads involved.
“I think it is important for City Council and the citizens of Elyria to understand that the city of Elyria is not the reason this project is not moving forward at this time,” Brinda told Council on Monday. “On the contrary, the city has gone out of its way to offer assistance, and we are still hopeful the project can be saved.”
Lorain County commissioners also “haven’t embraced the help” the city has offered including finding ways to indemnify the county against liability, which city officials said Monday still is possible with input from legal counsel and the Ohio Rail Development Commission.
Council President Mike Lotko didn’t hide his aggravation with county officials after Brinda finished her presentation to Council on Monday.
“The commissioners have some explaining to do to us and the citizens of Elyria,” he told Council. “We have money in Issue 6 committed to this.”
Councilman Jack Baird, R-at large, called it “a travesty the commissioners are not meeting with us,” while Councilman Mark Jessie, D-Ward 3, said he would be calling all three commissioners today and urged citizens to do the same.
The county has been “committed to trying to make the project work, but there’s also reality that we have to deal with,” Lundy said Monday. “The reality is that the railroad wants open indemnification for an endless period of time, and that’s something we can’t do. If, God forbid, something should go wrong, then obviously the county would be open to potential litigation and liability.”
Lundy said the county tried to negotiate the liability issue with the railroads and is legally forbidden from exposing the county and taxpayers to liability.
Brinda said that’s a false issue, as she has approached the Ohio Rail Development Commission to act as a neutral third party to assess the plan and offer assistance — again, if the county would agree to sit down.
The city also has $250,000 in Issue 6 funds — $50,000 per year for five years — it is willing to spend to jumpstart the project, while Lorain County has Federal Transit Administration funds, more than $3.6 million in grants and a $2.9 million commitment from Amtrak at its disposal, she said.
Norfolk Southern Railroad also told the city that the county knew two years ago the railroad was willing to work with it on many of the outstanding issues, including liability protections and insurance, Brinda said. That makes complaints about indemnification, insurance and liability a “false issue,” she said.
Elyria Law Director Scott Serazin also said Monday that rail projects in both Toledo and Sandusky have found ways to deal with liability issues. He also offered a potential solution — having the Elyria Community Improvement Corporation purchase insurance coverage to cover any liability created by the project — in a Nov. 27 letter he sent to Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will and Assistant Prosecutor Gerald Innes, according to documents obtained by The Chronicle-Telegram.
Brinda, who also suggested “co-insurance” paid for by both the city and the county, said the ORDC is ready to provide expertise on overcoming the issues as long as county officials are willing to sit and work it out.
Lundy said he was aware of the emails, phone calls and letters between the parties, but that doesn’t change the legal issues the commissioners and their legal counsel at the Lorain County Prosecutor’s Office believe exist.
“We have had endless discussions with Amtrak and Norfolk Southern and legally, we can’t do it,” he said.
Brinda and Lundy met one-on-one over the issue sometime between summer 2018 (Brinda’s recollection), in late 2018 or earlier this year (Lundy’s recollection). Neither recalled the specific date. But commissioners and city officials have not had a larger meeting on the issue.
Lundy also said Monday that Amtrak was not willing to make a long-term commitment to bringing passengers to Elyria. Amtrak offered a five-year commitment while the county wanted a 25- or 30-year commitment.
“We have been at this for a long time, and it’s not something we’ve taken lightly,” he said. “We looked at every angle possible. We have a responsibility to the taxpayers to not expose the county and the taxpayers to an open liability potential unless we can get the railroad to agree to limited liability ... it’s a misrepresentation that we didn’t try to make it work.”
Even with all the back-and-forth and finger-pointing she said has gone on, Brinda said the city still is willing to work with the county to build an accessible passenger rail stop in Elyria.
“It’s in both of our best interests to have a collegial relationship,” she said. “We’re still willing to have a dialogue. We don’t even have to be in a room. It can be done if they wanted it done.”