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The time is now for high-speed rail, Ohio officials say

(The following story by Jim DeBrosse appeared on the Dayton Daily News website on October 11, 2009.)

DAYTON, Ohio — What does Ohio have that other states seeking federal high-speed rail funds don’t?

The answer is “Big D,” meaning density. At least 6 million people live within 15 miles of Ohio’s proposed 250 mile route from Cincinnati through Dayton to Columbus and Cleveland.

“It’s the most densely populated area in the country that is devoid of rail service,” Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said last week. “If we don’t (develop a passenger rail system), we’ll find ourselves isolated from the rest of the country.”

State and local officials are hoping the Big D will position Ohio well among the 24 states vying for a share of the $8 billion set aside for high-speed rail development in the federal economic stimulus program. In all, the Federal Rail Administration has received $50 billion in state applications. FRA officials said last week that they will award the funds sometime this winter.

Ohio’s application asks for $564 million to launch its 3-C “Quick Start” train route with its first eight stops, including Dayton, Riverside and Springfield.

The “Quick Start” moniker has nothing to do with trains, which will max out at 79 mph. Instead, Ohio officials see their plan as the quickest way to launch train service in Ohio, using only federal funds, with the hope of expanding and speeding up the service in the future.

With a projected ridership of 475,000 people a year, fares along the Quick Start route would generate $12 million in revenue, according to Amtrak officials.

Ohio would have to kick in another $17 million in annual operating funds, but state and local officials say that’s a bargain considering the economic and environmental benefits that are expected to accrue to the state from a passenger rail system.

The Ohio Department of Commerce estimates the project would create more than 10,000 jobs and grow investment around the rail stations and in nearby communities.

In North Carolina, construction and revitalization of local train stations paid out $94 million in wages and another $16 million in local property taxes. Maine is planning to invest $31.5 million to extend its Downeaster service, and expects to draw $7.2 billion in investment along the new route by 2030.

City of Dayton officials are hoping a new downtown train station at Sixth and Ludlow streets will generate retail development around the station. “This actually gives downtown a function in terms of access to transportation,” said chief city planner John Gower.

Gower noted the station will be within a few blocks of Sinclair Community College, government buildings and the central business district, as well as within easy shuttle distance to Miami Valley Hospital and the University of Dayton. The city is asking $5.7 million in stimulus funds to build the station and a pedestrian walkway and passenger drop-off along Sixth Street.

Riverside officials have even higher hopes for their proposed $50 million train station and transportation hub on Springfield Pike across from the U.S. Air Force Museum.

Riverside Economic Development Director Bob Murray envisions hundreds, even thousands of passengers loading and unloading there each day to visit the state’s top public tourist attraction or to commute to jobs at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

The transportation hub would draw businesses to the surrounding four acres, raising the value of the land from its current $13 million to $108 million, Murray said.

Even if Ohio fails to get the federal stimulus money, Strickland said the state needs to make passenger rail service a top transportation priority for its future.

With surrounding states developing their own passenger rail systems, including high-speed connections to big cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C., “Ohio will be significantly disadvantaged if we pass up this opportunity,” he said.

Monday, October 12, 2009

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