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Ohio officials, residents eager for high-speed rail

(The following article by Jim Saban was posted on the Lima News website on December 3.)

LIMA, Ohio -- Martie MacDonell remembers the first time she came to Lima.

MacDonell, a Youngstown native, rode in on the Pennsylvania train. Her future brother-in-law, John MacDonell, jokingly arranged for a red carpet to be rolled out for her.

“I received quite a welcome,” she said. “I think people remember riding that train to important events in their lives, and for exciting trips and vacations, and all of those kinds of things.”

Lima’s administration has been rolling out its own red carpet for years, but not for any specific person. Instead, the effort to bring a high-speed rail line through the city finally seems to be making some headway.

Actually, the fight was to bring Amtrak trains back to Lima, but when that failed, the city shifted gears. Now, the Ohio Rail Development Commission is conducting a feasibility study to add a line through Lima to its proposed Ohio Hub high-speed rail plan, and it’s conducting economic impact studies on the entire network.

Of course, nothing will happen without federal funding. But for the first time, a fund is being considered in Congress that could help pay for the final studies and design work, and ultimately, for construction.

“This is the time to strike and make sure the information is out there. The time is right,” Lima Chief of Staff Catherine Garlock said.

Riding the rails

For some in town, the memories of riding the train to Chicago or Cleveland for the day aren’t that distant.

“It was just a great way to travel. You’d leave early in the morning, and you’d be in Chicago late in the morning, you could spend the day, and you’d be back late at night,” Lima resident Fred Odum said.

“People are so used to the independence of hopping in the car to go to Chicago or Cleveland. There’s going to come a time when the roads are so crowded with trucks, and the high-speed train could go twice as fast as a car, I think it will give you more freedom to travel to cities,” he said.

He and his wife, Lima Community Development Director Amy Sackman Odum, also rode with trips sponsored by ArtSpace/Lima.

“It was a convenient way to get to Chicago for a long weekend with friends and family,” Amy Sackman Odum said. “I can’t think of a better way to travel than by train. It’s relaxing, you can get up and move around, you can read … things you can’t even do on an airplane.”

Bill Timmermeister remembers riding to Chicago when he was a child.

“I have been on that run to Chicago, and I’d gone to see the Christmas lights when I was a little boy,” Timmermeister, now the owner of Lima Auto Mall, said. “It was a wonderful, wonderful trip. Frequently, when we did that, it was because the roads were so bad you couldn’t drive.”

But the trips don’t have to be for pleasure, he added. Timmermeister once had customers that rode the train to Lima from Chicago, then headed back the same day.

“We’ve had various people that dealt with my business that came on a regular basis from Chicago,” he said. “It was people we were selling merchandise to, vehicles and the leasing business.”

He’d love to see a high-speed line coming through Lima to make that trip even faster; the 110-mph trains could cut the trip to Chicago to about three hours. And if all the plans being proposed come true, high-speed rail could link Lima with cities like New York, St. Louis, Washington and Minneapolis.

“With high-speed rail, that, in my mind, a lot of those trips are going to be faster by rail than by flying,” Timmermeister said.

The grand plan

When Stu Nicholson talks about plans for a high-speed rail network in and around Ohio, he really only has one setting — excited.

Even through a telephone line, there’s none of the usual this-is-what’s-happening-as-told-by-the-public-information-guy here. Nicholson, public information officer for the Ohio Rail Development Commission, can’t wait to see a plan actually put in place.

“This is happening at a time when rail freight and passenger service is growing,” Nicholson said. “They’ve been setting new records consistently for the last three years in terms of passenger rail service.”

While the studies that are going on today have been in the works for a while, it’s all been with state money. But now, the U.S. Senate has overwhelmingly passed the addition of a fund to provide federal money for future studies, a fund that could one day be used for construction funds. While the House didn’t include the same provision in a budget reconciliation last month, a conference committee could restore it, Nicholson said.

“It passed by a huge margin in the Senate, something like 93-6 … that’s not only a super majority, that’s bipartisan support clearly down the line,” Nicholson said.

That vote only approved $11.4 million to provide 80 percent matching funds for studies across the country, and there are at least 25 states looking into design work for a high-speed rail system, Nicholson said. Still, he’s encouraged.

“That’s not a tremendous amount of money initially, but the important thing from our view isn’t the amount of money in the pool, because you can always go add money to the pool, it’s to get the thing passed,” Nicholson said. Similar bills were used to get the national highway system and national air traffic control system off the ground, he added.

“They all started out very small and grew rapidly, and look what we have now. We have one of the best highway systems in the world, and we have one of the best aviation control systems,” he said.

“It is authorized so that states or regions could, if they have a plan and matching funding, get additional funding for the regional rail partnerships like the Ohio Hub plan,” said Jeff Sadosky, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, a co-sponsor of the Senate legislation. “The Amtrak authorization legislation is a way that we can keep things moving in terms of design and planning. It gives them the opportunity to do these studies and look at new ideas.”

While the money is included in the Amtrak authorization, it doesn’t mean Amtrak would actually be involved in high-speed rail; most likely it wouldn’t, experts say.

The plan being considered for Ohio would actually have two “hubs,” one in Cleveland and one in Columbus. The line through Lima, which is being brought up to the same level of readiness as the rest, would connect Chicago, Fort Wayne, Ind., Lima, Columbus and Pittsburgh. Another line would go from Cincinnati through Dayton and Columbus to Cleveland, then on to Erie, Pa., Buffalo, N.Y., and Toronto. Still another would go from Pittsburgh through Cleveland to Toledo and Chicago, with another spur heading for Detroit.

It’s an ambitious plan that could cost billions to construct, but it’s not even close to the size of the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative based in Chicago. That network spiderwebs out across Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and links with spokes of the Ohio Hub. The Ohio Hub also would link to existing lines leaving Pittsburgh for Philadelphia and Washington, and the Buffalo link would connect to New York and Boston, among others.

And they all need money to develop new lines. Nicholson said there is an interest from freight haulers, too. Using dedicated passenger lines would free up freight lines and could create better crossings, as well.

Aside from convenience, having access to a high-speed rail line has economic development ramifications. Commuting to Columbus in an hour could have its advantages, Garlock pointed out.

“How many people would work in Columbus if they could ride the train every day?” she asked. “It expands your employability.”

She said Lima has several selling points for getting on one of the lines. Lima, like Fort Wayne, still has a train depot, which is now being used as a billing office for the Utilities Department. A bus station is right around the corner, the Lima-Allen County Regional Transit Authority, she added.

Yet, it wasn’t in the original plans. Lima Mayor David Berger started the push to get Lima included, drawing help from Fort Wayne, and eventually, the mayors of Chicago, Columbus and Pittsburgh signed on, as well.

Watching the possibilities

While no system is going to be in place for at least 10 years, it doesn’t stop people from speculating on the positives. The first transportation system to cross the United States, the railroad, could once again become a viable way to get around the country.

“We could live wherever we wanted to if we had high-speed trains to be able to get places. It just makes our possibilities expand, I think,” MacDonell said. “A high-speed railroad system through our town would help us feel less isolated, economically and socially and culturally.”

Bob Torbet frequently took trains to Chicago and other cities for trade shows when he worked with Jones Hardware, and said he can see those types of trips happening with high-speed rail.

“I do think that there is a place for high-speed rail, I really do. I think we can all see that our interstates are getting more and more crowded,” he said.

That type of personal, face-to-face business still has a place, Timmermeister added.

“High-tech, low-touch is not always the best thing. We get so into our electronics today that we’re so far removed. It almost seems like we’re turning into automatons,” he said. “I think it provides some exciting potentialities. I think people would use something like that.”

Monday, December 5, 2005

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