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Ohio’s high speed rail plan would bypass Akron

(The following appeared on the Akron Beacon Journal website on August 23, 2009.)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A plan seeking federal stimulus money to restore passenger train service among Ohio's major cities leaves out Akron and a stop at the U.S. Air Force museum near Dayton, transportation officials said.

The state is racing to develop a plan and apply for stimulus money by an Oct. 2 deadline, said Stu Nicholson, spokesman for the Ohio Rail Development Commission, the agency in charge of submitting the application.

Some potential stops have been dropped from consideration to keep travel time on the 250-mile route connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati to about six hours, which would be competitive with highway driving times along the same corridor, he said.

Incorporating Akron to the route would add about one hour and 30 minutes to the train's travel time.

Both Akron and Riverside, which is next to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, could be added as startup operations expand, but for now, neither fits in, Nicholson said.

Akron and Summit County leaders met with train officials earlier this year to talk about the plans, Akron Deputy Mayor David Lieberth said. Local leaders understand why Akron won't be included in the startup service, but want the city to be part of any expansion, he said.

Mayor Don Plusquellic has drafted a letter outlining that desire, Lieberth said.

Local leaders also want to see a stop in Medina County so the initial train service is more accessible to Summit County residents, he said.

States are competing to get a slice of $8 billion in stimulus money that President Barack Obama set aside for rail projects, which he sees as a down payment for a future high-speed network.

Ohio wants as much as $400 million to buy rail cars and upgrade freight tracks so that Amtrak trains traveling up to 79 mph can start running in 2011.

A few intermediate stops are likely. Sites still under consideration for startup service include Berea, Galion, northern Columbus, Springfield, Middletown, Hamilton and northern Cincinnati, possibly Sharonville.

The decision to leave out the Air Force museum is a blow to Riverside, where officials had lobbied for a train station to be built on 44 acres across the street from the museum's entrance. It would serve as a centerpiece for a new commercial district.

The museum draws about 1 million visitors a year.

Deputy Mayor Jim Wellman said he's disappointed but optimistic that Riverside can be included in future rail plans. Amtrak trains in Michigan, for example, make conditional stops for tour groups visiting Greenfield Village, which is part of the Henry Ford Museum.

Gov. Ted Strickland and seven other Midwestern governors have pledged to coordinate stimulus bids and lobbying efforts, saying a high-speed network would help reduce road congestion and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Under a long-term plan, trains eventually would run up to 110 mph. New branches would connect other parts of Ohio and feed into cities throughout the Midwest and along the East Coast.

The only U.S. rail service that meets the Federal Railroad Administration's 110 mph threshold to qualify as high-speed rail is Amtrak's 9-year-old Acela Express route connecting Boston to Washington, D.C.

Monday, August 24, 2009

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