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Ohio in national race for rail funding

(The following story by James Nash appeared on the Columbus Dispatch website on September 10, 2009.)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio will be one of 40 states angling for a piece of $8 billion in federal stimulus money for high-speed railroads, and competition is likely to be fierce, the state Rail Development Commission said today as it approved the application for the funds.

In all, the 40 are seeking $102 billion for rail projects, a spokesman for the Ohio commission said.

The commission unanimously supported the state's application for $250 million to $400 million to start conventional-speed passenger rail service linking Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati.

The panel also backed the bid of a new Columbus company, U.S. Railcar LLC, to build diesel-fueled trains to run on the rail line. U.S. Railcar is seeking federal stimulus money as well as state economic-development grants to build a $14million plant in Gahanna to build and maintain passenger trains.

Ohio rail advocates said today that events are converging in favor of improved rail service in Ohio: President Barack Obama's decision to release stimulus money for rail, generally higher gas prices, interest in the private sector and backing from state officials.

"What we see across the country is a coalescing of citizens, leaders, private developers who recognize that this is a unique opportunity to invest in what the president called a down payment for passenger rail service in our state, in our country," said Jolene Molitoris, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation and a former federal rail official.

But one rail advocate warned that opponents in the trucking and petroleum industries are working behind the scenes to derail the effort.

Critics, including some legislators, suggest that passenger rail could become an expensive boondoggle requiring large state subsidies and attracting few riders.

"There are groups out there that are very committed to deny you the goals that you seek," Art Arnold of the Ohio Railroad Association told members of the rail commission.

Arnold singled out the Ohio Trucking Association and the Ohio Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association. Representatives of the two groups did not return calls yesterday afternoon.

Ohio officials hope to have passenger trains running at near-freeway speeds by the end of next year, with the line upgraded to accommodate much-faster speeds by 2016.

Amtrak is finishing a study that's expected to show projected Ohio ridership, cost to passengers, how much of a subsidy would be required, and the costs of launching the service. The study is expected by Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, the Rail Development Commission will hold the first of three public forums for people interested in the proposed rail plan.

The meeting is scheduled for 1 to 3 p.m. at the King Arts Complex, 867 Mount Vernon Ave. in Columbus. The other meetings will be in Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Friday, September 11, 2009

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