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Tower City's Future Could Once Again Include Transportation Hub, if Amtrak Proposal Wins

Terminal Tower cir. 1927
Cleveland Memory Project
Terminal Tower Building in Cleveland circa 1927

Amtrak has proposed dramatically increasing train service to Cleveland. And in anticipation of that, a passenger rail advocacy group says the city’s train depot should be moved back to Tower City. All Aboard Ohio spokesman Ken Prendergast explains why the move is a good idea, and what it could take to become a reality.

The History of Amtrak in Cleveland.mp3
Prendergast: transportation hub

Prendergast: “Well, we think that Tower City Center — the former Cleveland Union Terminal — is a superior location because it is at the hub of the city's public transportation system and also the region's public transportation system. All of the transit services that come in from Lake County, Akron, Portage, Stark County; they all come into public Square. And it's a point of shared access, so we think that it is a good location for having this intermodal connection among all these different surface transportation modes.”

Bhatia: “Where else has this worked successfully, having a unified hub for transportation?”

Prendergast: “There's many other cities that have stations similar to this, such as Milwaukee. In the last 10 years they created a multimodal transportation center in their downtown which has Greyhound, Amtrak, and the light rail. Seattle, Saint Louis, Portland, [and] Albany. And by the way, all of those cities that I just mentioned have the same type of Amtrak service levels that Amtrak is proposing here, which is 22 trains per day. They have anywhere from 14 to 28 trains a day in those cities, and they also have passenger boarding numbers between 500,000 and 1 million people per year.”

Bhatia: “Getting back here to Cleveland, there's a few variables which could prevent this from happening. First, we have an existing Amtrak station which could figure into Mayor Frank Jackson's plans for a land bridge downtown.”

Prendergast: “Well, we think that the land bridge makes sense on its own, whether Amtrak is part of it or not. If they consolidate two light rail stations into one, [with] the RTA waterfront line, that's a great thing to be having there. That also allows this lakefront land bridge to tap into public transportation real estate-related resources at the U.S. Department of Transportation. So they don't really lose access to funds because of [the bridge, but] they would lose the potential foot traffic numbers that they would have there. Still, that makes a lot of sense, whether the trains are there or not, to link up downtown with the lakefront. And then the whole aspect of having Tower City in the first place is, it's in the heart of the city. There's more things to do around it, and certainly more businesses and more employers and attractions.”

Bhatia: “So what about Tower City; I know there was once some passenger traffic there, but a lot of that infrastructure is gone?”

Prednergast: “It was ripped out after the last passenger train served the station, which was in 1977. And what's interesting is that Amtrak, with the types of service that they're proposing here, would want to be in a setting that is not besieged by freight trains. That would be the situation on the lakefront where 70 free trains today operate past their existing station. So they would not want to have the type of congestion issues and confronting those freight trains. So they would want to relocate those freight trains off the lakefront to a bypass route, which Norfolk Southern already has, but needs more capacity added to it — more tracks, more bridges and all of that.”

Bhatia: “What’s the timetable for getting a dialogue going about this with the city, with Amtrak, and with Dan Gilbert, who owns Tower City?”

Prendergast: “This is pretty much our last chance to get Amtrak back into Tower City and have this type of multimodal transportation center there. The timing of this works out because we've got Amtrak proposing this mini-hub here. Sherwin-Williams is going to be moving their R&D facility out of there. So we've got more room to play with for having a direct right-of-way to go past the Stokes Federal Courthouse, which was built on the old Cleveland Terminal right-of-way. And that's probably the biggest impediment to restoring trains back to Tower City Center.

“Some of the other things that have been built on, or next to, the right-of-way can be moved and it's not a huge expense getting around that. The courthouse is a big deal, but because of Sherwin-Williams is relocating the R&D facility, there’s the opportunity to do that. We'd need to get in there before Dan Gilbert puts something on the right-of-way. Instead, we'd like to see something built above the old right-of-way so that the trains can go underneath it. Then it could be part of a whole mixed-use type of complex, like many other cities are proposing.”

A documentary about the history of Cleveland’s Union Terminal from WVIZ is available here.

The History of Terminal Tower & Cleveland's Union Terminal