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Ohio passenger rail advocates rush to meet requirements to apply for stimulus funds for 3C Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati route

(The following story by Karen Farkas appeared on The Plain Dealer website on September 2, 2009.)

CLEVELAND — Ohio passenger rail advocates are moving at breakneck speed to fulfill requirements to apply for up to $450 million in federal stimulus money to provide service from Cleveland to Cincinnati.

They are seeking public input through a Web site, toll-free phone number and meetings across the state as part of an environmental assessment study that is required as part of the funding application, due by Oct. 2 to the Federal Rail Commission.

The study, which usually takes about a year, will be compiled in less than three months.

"We are really compressing this process and a lot of it is driven by the tight timeline," said Stu Nicholson, spokesman for the Ohio Rail Development Commission, an independent agency of the Ohio Department of Transportation. "But I am not overstating this at all to say the level of interest from virtually every community large and small is very high."

Under Ohio's 3C plan, three trains would travel daily from Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati in each direction along the 260-mile corridor. The service, with 79-mph trains, would begin in 2011 with minimal stops. It would eventually add more stops and become part of a 110-mph high-speed network to connect west to Chicago and east to New York.

The trains would be operated by Amtrak on freight tracks owned by CSX and Norfolk Southern. More than 6 million people live within 15 miles of the route, said ODOT spokesman Scott Varner.

Rail engineers estimate it would take three hours to travel the 145 miles from Cleveland to Columbus and an additional three hours to travel 130 miles from Columbus through Dayton to Cincinnati, according to the rail commission. That compares to about five hours by car for the entire route, they said.

The competition for the $8 billion pot of federal funding is fierce from all over the country. There are expected to be 278 requests from 40 states and the District of Columbia totaling $102 billion, the rail commission said.

So Ohio's application, which will seek $200 million to $450 million, has to be as detailed and complete as possible, Varner and Nicholson said.

Close to 1,000 people were invited to workshops in July and August in Columbus to narrow down the routes, stops and station locations. Another workshop is scheduled on Sept. 15.

"Basically these are public officials, chambers of commerce members, local transit officials -- anyone we could think of who had an interest in the project and would have something to say," Nicholson said. "We have to have service that is competitive in terms of time and efficiency."

Public meetings will be held this month in Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. Cleveland's meeting is set for Sept. 16. Information from all meetings will be submitted, along with a report this month from Amtrak that will provide critical information, including ridership estimates and revenue projections.

The state will prevail, Varner said.

"We are showing to Washington that we have a strong plan in place and how we can maximize the dollars they have," he said. "There is such great competition. We will show we are ready to go."

Friday, September 4, 2009

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