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Published: Friday, 7/31/2009

Plan to close Westwood draws mixed reactions

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The city's proposal to close part of Westwood Avenue to support expansion of a South Toledo rail terminal got mixed reviews from neighbors last night, with some protesting potential noise or traffic problems while others said they'd welcome the project's expected economic benefits.

The expansion also may interfere with the University of Toledo's long-standing plans to create a cooridor between UT and its health science campus, the former Medical College of Ohio, using Westwood as a route linking the two campuses.

Habib Khan, who owns a vehicle-storage lot on Westwood just south of the tracks, said his and other nearby businesses' best route north to I-475 would be cut off if the crossing were closed, while Westbury Court resident Royce Ruch said he'd be forced to use busier, more dangerous streets to attend events at the University of Toledo.

But Carol Flenner, an Airline Avenue resident whose backyard abuts the Norfolk Southern railroad line across South Toledo that includes the existing terminal, said she'd be satisfied if the proj-ect could just include a barrier wall along the railroad to reduce locomotive noise and fumes.

"It's already noisy, but this [project] will be more," Ms. Flenner said. "I can deal with going around a different way."

And Anna Lee Samson, who lives on Caswell Street, said she'd gladly see the crossing closed "if it would mean an infusion of money into this town."

According to projections in a task-force report on intermodal development in Toledo, expansion of the Norfolk Southern facility could create nearly 900 jobs, $112 million in economic activity, and $2.7 million in annual tax revenue for the city and state. The project is expected to cost about $12.8 million, of which the railroad would contribute $4 million, with the balance to come from state and federal grants the city has obtained.

The benefits would accrue from an expected doubling of the truck trailers and containers loaded and unloaded from trains at the railroad yard if its train storage and switching capability is expanded in accordance with the plan.

Project officials hope to complete the planning and review process by late this year, so Norfolk Southern can build next year.

The city's legislative process for closing the crossing is likely to last until at least November and require nine or more additional public meetings, said Dave Amstutz, Toledo's economic development director.

Janice Winkle, a Segur Avenue resident, said the railroad and other project proponents should have concentrated on identifying a site in a "totally industrial" area rather than next to a dense neighborhood like the one along the south side of the tracks in that part of South Toledo. "You're going to be putting all these trucks on city streets," she said.

But James Tuschman, chairman of the Joint Intermodal Task Force that studied the matter and persuaded Norfolk Southern to consider expanding its Toledo operations, said the project is not economically feasible anywhere else.

"This is where their yard is. That yard's been there for how many years?" he said. "For $12 million, we are able to bring intermodal transportation to a community that desperately needs business.

"We have to be able to understand that if we're going to go anywhere, we have to take our individual situations out of it and do what's best for the city," agreed D. Michael Collins, a city councilman whose district includes the neighborhoods south of the tracks.

Mr. Collins said Toledo can only survive if it attracts industrial development to rebuild its tax and job base, and predicted the area around Burroughs School would actually be "enriched" by the project, because of the jobs it will generate.

Mr. Amstutz said closing the crossing is expected to have minimal impact on emergency services, because trains block Westwood so often as it is, emergency crews use other routes to avoid the risk of delay.

But closing Westwood would sever the UT/MCO route that has been discussed as part of the university's proposed Science and Technology Corridor, touted for years as the solution to enhance the region's economy.

As recently as 2007, the U.S. Commerce Department granted UT $1.9 million, matched by the university, to build roads and infrastructure in the south perimeter of the cooridor near the former MCO.

A link between the two campuses would require extending Westwood south across a new bridge over Swan Creek to reach Arlington Avenue, but it is uncertain if that project will be pursued if the rail yard expansion closing Westwood is approved.

Lloyd Jacobs, the university's president, said yesterday that closing Westwood would not harm his institution's development plans.

"The Scott Park Campus of Energy and Innovation is a high priority for the University of Toledo. It is important to our mission and our vision," he said in a prepared statement. "We do not believe that expansion of the intermodal terminal will have a negative impact on the Scott Park initiative."

Pat Nicholson, a former Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority member and past consultant to UT on its Science Corridor project, agreed with UT's president.

"The high-tech corridor is a corridor from Ann Arbor all the way to Bowling Green, and a disruption on one street will not disrupt it," Mr. Nicholson said. "The key to its success is location, and we have a great location."

And Mr. Amstutz said that if an overpass were ever needed on Westwood to restore access across the railroad, the city would retain the right to build one even after the crossing was closed.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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