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Congress revives high-speed rail dream for Ohio

(The following story by Sarah Hollander appeared on the Cleveland Plain Dealer website on June 17.)

CLEVELAND — If the state could write its own ticket, trains traveling 110 miles an hour would whisk passengers between major and minor cities throughout Ohio.

But at billions of dollars, an extensive high-speed rail network always seemed ambitious at best, unrealistic at worst. Until now.

Legislation working its way through Congress - the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act - has local rail advocates almost giddy with excitement.

The act proposes an up to 80 percent match to help states create or improve passenger rail service.

It also provides $350 million per year in competitive grants for states and Amtrak, specifically for high-speed rail projects.

"This is a huge step," said Stu Nicholson of the Ohio Rail Development Commission. "A bill like this could make the difference between a plan and a project."

With gasoline prices soaring, the time is right for rail alternatives, he said.

The legislation, if it stands, signals a landmark shift in national policy toward supporting rail, said Rep. Steven LaTourette.

The act proposes a federal-state partnership that's more commonly associated with highway projects, he said.

LaTourette, a Bainbridge Township Republican, foresees focusing on one route, possibly a line through Cleveland and northern Ohio, first. Providing clean, fast, convenient service could drag more people out of their cars and encourage further rail investments, he said.

"Imagine if [rail] becomes as popular as it is in Europe and Asia," he said.

Ohio began working on the hub plan more than a decade ago with a mission to improve both passenger and freight rail service.

The plan includes more than 1,200 miles of track and 46 stations. The seven corridors would connect to planned or existing networks in neighboring states and southern Ontario.

A passenger boarding in Cleveland could not only travel to Toledo, Columbus, and Cincinnati, but also across state lines to Detroit, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and beyond.

Ohio would own the trains and hire an operator, such as Amtrak or a private company.

Ohioans currently have limited choices. Amtrak operates two routes that stop along Lake Erie and another that stops in Cincinnati.

The hub project would take eight to 10 years to build and cost $5 billion, Nicholson said.

The rail commission, an independent group within the Department of Transportation, is now looking for money to complete environmental studies.

Another shorter-term Ohio train effort, known as the 3-C project, could also benefit from new federal rail money.

Gov. Ted Strickland has asked Amtrak to investigate restoring passenger service between Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. His proposal includes running regular speed trains on mostly existing tracks.

In Washington, the House and Senate have both passed versions of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act and are now working to create a joint bill. The legislation would then head to budget hearings.

LaTourette said the chances are good.

"It's now time to flex our muscles and get it done," he said.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

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