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Toledo on track for high-speed rail

(The following story by John Krudy appeared on the Toledo Free Press website on May 23.)

TOLEDO, Ohio — Government officials in Ohio and Toledo are planning an Ohio Hub of high-speed trains that could link Toledo to Detroit, Cleveland and national rail networks.

"The whole idea is to get the plan ready to the point that the minute federal funds become available, we can say, 'fund me,'" said Transportation Project Manager Diane Reamer-Evans of the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments (TMACOG). "I think we'd be in a position to compete."

The Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC) has been working with city and county officials across the state for six years to develop the Ohio Hub system. The plan would upgrade existing rail networks to run high-speed passenger trains capable of reaching 110 mph. Right now, trains in Ohio are limited to 79 mph.

ORDC Public Information Officer Stu Nicholson said his agency has tried to incorporate all interested parties.

"We brought in the departments of transportation from New York, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, along with CSX, Norfolk Southern, Amtrak and Via Rail Canada [railroad companies]," he said. "The hub plan really breaks from the Amtrak mold - these are trains we [Ohio] would control."

Nicholson said the central goal of the hub plan is to serve

Ohio passengers, while connecting it with the region, namely, major rail systems on the East Coast and ones heading west from Chicago.

Reamer-Evans said Toledo, under the hub plan, could install a tram line Downtown that would get riders to the high-speed station. Feeder bus services would increase, too, she said.

Before construction can begin, the ORDC must run a Programmatic Environmental Impact Study (PEIS) for each corridor of the hub plan. The PEIS would determine track lengths, positions and bridge construction, which Reamer-Evans said would be necessary over the Maumee River.

Nicholson said his office has asked U.S. representatives Marcy Kaptur, Mike Turner, Tim Ryan and Patrick Tiberi to spearhead efforts to fund the requisite PEIS for the hub corridor nearest their district.

Nicholson said the U.S. Senate on Oct. 30 voted 93-6 to pass the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act. The bill, in addition to funding Amtrak, would create an 80/20 federal matching grant program for projects like the Ohio Hub. HR 6003, the House version of the bill, was introduced in committee May 22.

"This bill could be huge," Nicholson said.

That federal funding could go toward the initial PEIS for each corridor, and eventually, construction itself.

Matt Dietrich, executive director of the ORDC, said the first hub project would be to create the Cleveland-Cincinnati-Columbus (Three-C) corridor, plus one other line. That other line, he said, could be a connection to Toledo.

"Toledo's link to Chicago is key," he said, adding that Toledo's links to Cleveland, Detroit and the West via Chicago are essential, and make it high on the list of primary projects.

"Toledo's local officials have done well to preserve rail connectivity in the area," said ORDC Passenger Rail Planner Dan Damron, and that also increases Toledo's chance at early construction.

Nicholson said after the bill passes and all funding is in place, a PEIS would take "a few" years, and the first corridors could run trains within five years of its completion. The hub would take 10 to 12 years to reach complete operation.

"We're looking at about $4.5 billion to upgrade existing rail into the hub system, at a cost of $3.5 to $4 million per mile," Damron said.

Once the system was operating, the Ohio Hub could carry 9 million riders and cost $200 million to operate each year, but should bring in $300 to $310 million in returns.

"That 1.5 positive ratio is what the Federal Railroad Administration requires for a program to be eligible for federal funding," Damron said. "So we're there."

Friday, May 23, 2008

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