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Ohio makes its case for high speed passenger rail

(The Associated Press circulated the following story by Matt Leingang on October 2, 2009.)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio's bid for $564 million in federal stimulus money to launch passenger train service hinges on how much the Obama administration is willing to invest in a state with no track record of rail operations, experts said Friday.

States such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois are seeking millions to upgrade existing routes so trains could travel from 79 mph to 110 mph. California is hoping to build a system where trains could at least approach European-like speeds of 200 mph.

Ohio's proposal, submitted this week, seems modest by comparison - a 79-mph, startup rail service connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati.

States with a history of train service that are ready to boost their speeds clearly have an edge in getting a slice of the $8 billion that President Barack Obama has set aside for high-speed rail projects, said Joe Schwieterman, a professor of public policy at DePaul University in Chicago.

"I think Obama needs to show he's scored a great victory with this funding by giving Americans a showpiece train," Schwieterman said. "We need to show that we're ready to join the big leagues with Europe and Asia, and I think the Ohio proposal is a little out of step with that."

It's unclear when the administration will announce its funding decisions or what criteria it will use.

Some key members of Ohio's congressional delegation, led by U.S. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and U.S. George Voinovich, a Republican, sent a letter Friday to the U.S. Department of Transportation supporting the state's application.

About 6 million people live along the 255-mile Ohio route, making it one of the most heavily populated corridors without rail service in the Midwest - a major selling point that state transportation officials make in their application.

"It is one of the best opportunities anywhere in the nation to bring this type of travel choice to those who currently do not have it," said Jolene Molitoris, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation.

Amtrak has predicted that a startup service in Ohio would draw 478,000 riders a year and has the demographics needed for successful operations, including population density and a concentration of colleges and universities.

The state aims to build up ridership and gradually make infrastructure improvements so that tracks can handle 110 mph trains, with branches connecting to a Chicago-based Midwest corridor and cities on the East Coast.

In allocating stimulus money, the Obama administration should strike a balance between increasing speeds in states that already have trains and introducing passenger rail to other parts of the country, such as Ohio, said Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

"I think it's important to address both categories," he said.

But the administration also should assess the financial commitment from each state so that federal rail investments can be sustained, Capon said.

Ohio would need to spend as much as $17 million to keep conventional-speed service operational each year, according to Amtrak.

That has drawn criticism from highway construction lobbyists, who worry that Ohio would divert money from road projects to pay for the train subsidy.

"Ohio is already financially challenged to maintain the roads we have," said Chris Runyan, president of the Ohio Contractors Association.

Transportation officials plan to use a mix of funding sources to cover the subsidy, including train advertising, grants and fees that restaurants, hotels and gas stations pay to advertise on blue highway exit signs.

Monday, October 5, 2009

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