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Published: Monday, 10/7/2013

Success story of hub upgrade focus of forum at Toledo Club

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Not long after John Robert Smith became mayor of Meridian, Miss., in 1993, that city undertook a $7 million renovation and reconfiguration of its passenger-rail station to make it a transportation hub and, officials hoped, a focal point for downtown revitalization.

Meridian’s Union Station Multi-Modal Transportation Center, completed in 1997, is a centerpiece of a revived downtown that, according to a report by the Institute for Sustainable Communities, is the busiest public space in the city and has generated $135 million in nearby private-sector investment.

Mr. Smith, now co-chairman of the Transportation for America think-tank, will be the featured speaker in Toledo today at a Passenger Rail Forum co-sponsored by the Northwest Ohio Passenger Rail Association and the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments’ Public Transit and Passenger Rail Committee.

The program will run from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Toledo Club. Mr. Smith’s presentation, “Revitalizing Communities: The Power of Station Renovation” will be followed by a panel discussion including William Thomas, chief executive of the Downtown Toledo Development Corp.; Jerry Wicks, director of the Ohio Higher Education Rail Network, and Paul Toth, president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority.

The Meridian station project, Mr. Smith said Friday, “was as much an economic development project as a transportation center.”

While Meridian has a population of just 42,000, he said, it is a regional services center for 350,000 people in a broad swath of eastern Mississippi and western Alabama. The enhanced transportation hub has attracted housing, educational, and restaurant and entertainment development.

Baby Boomers and Millennials are showing growing preferences for urban living, Mr. Smith continued.

Nationwide, he said, the older generation “is selling remote, larger homes and choosing to live closer to entertainment and restaurant options,” while young adults are connected by communications and don’t need driver’s licenses the way previous generations did to gather with friends.

Mr. Smith was scheduled to tour downtown Toledo on Sunday and to meet today with city leaders in both Toledo and Bowling Green.

The Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority renovated Toledo’s Central Union Terminal, later renamed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Plaza, during the mid-1990s. With an eye toward establishing it too as a regional transportation hub, the project included bus bays intended for use by intercity buses.

But Greyhound Lines, noting that buses would have to back out into a public street to depart the station in violation of its standard operating practices, has remained in its bus station at Jefferson and Michigan streets, and the station’s only transit link to downtown is a single Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority bus route. The station’s bus bays are used only by Amtrak buses that travel to and from Michigan cities to connect with the four daily trains stopping in Toledo.

Nearby redevelopment has been limited to the recent construction of a headquarters complex for TARTA’s Toledo Area Regional Paratransit Service on the former Page Dairy property.

The dearth of activity at and around the Toledo train station is “what you’ve got to change,” Mr. Smith said. “That’s what we changed in Meridian.”

Meridian has just two train stops per day — the New York-New Orleans Southern Crescent in either direction — but supports proposals for additional service between Atlanta and New Orleans and across Mississippi to Jackson and Vicksburg, Mr. Smith said.

Ohio rail planners have proposed a network of routes across the state and into neighboring states that would include several lines through Toledo, but no funding is in place for any such projects.

The Kasich administration canceled state funding for the first route, linking Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, 2½ years ago because that it would cost too much, and trains would be too slow to attract significant ridership.

The forum at the Toledo Club includes a luncheon, and a limited number of tickets will be available at the door. Tickets cost $33 for general admission, $28 for NOPRA members, and $20 for students.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.



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