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Ohio to get $400 million for 3C rail project, Gov. Strickland says

(The following story by Aaron Marshall appeared on The Plain Dealer website on January 27, 2010.)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Passenger rail service linking Ohio's major cities -- the so-called 3C Corridor -- could be up and running by the end of 2012, thanks to a $400 million infusion of federal funding to be announced today by the Obama administration, says Gov. Ted Strickland.

The money, Ohio's share of an $8 billion pot of stimulus money for rail projects across the country, will pay for construction of a conventional-speed rail line linking Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati.

"I think this will do a lot to pull our state together," Strickland said in an interview. "We all see this as a major win for Ohio."

Strickland, who predicted the project will spur economic growth and job creation, will hold a press briefing this afternoon with U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to announce the good news for the project, which he championed in the state's latest transportation budget.

Ohio had submitted an application last fall asking federal officials for $564 million to get the 3C project up and running. That application envisioned a 256-mile route with six stations -- including a pair in Cleveland -- with four trains running per day at speeds up to 79 mph. A recent Amtrak study has estimated that train service would carry nearly half a million passengers a year, but cost more than $500 million to build.

The Cleveland stations would be at the lakefront Amtrak station and at RTA's transit station at West 150th Street and Puritas Avenue, according to the application.

The federal funding for the 3C is a major score for Ohio because competition was fierce, with applications from at least 40 states totaling about $106 billion in requests.

It isn't clear exactly how the 3C project would have to be altered to get under way with less than the $500 million or so that Amtrak officials -- who would operate the rail line -- think is needed. But running fewer than four trains per day would certainly be a cost-trimming option.

Amtrak officials have called for five train sets to be purchased, four to be used plus a spare, at an estimated total cost of $175 million. Each set includes a locomotive, five coaches, a dining car and a control car at the back so the train doesn't have to turn around.

Other costs might be harder to shave down because they include upgrading the tracks and spending $236 million to build additional sections of track needed so that passenger trains could intermingle smoothly with freight trains.

"I'm confident that $400 million will do what we need to do to get service established," Strickland said.

Ticket prices for the 3C haven't been determined, but a one-way ticket from Cleveland to Columbus has been estimated at about $25.50 based on the Amtrak average of 10 cents per mile, according to Ken Pendergrast, executive director of All Aboard Ohio, a nonprofit agency that promotes rail travel.

Two trains would be based in Columbus, with one each in Cleveland and Cincinnati. The state has proposed buying the trains from US Railcar LLC, which hopes to build the only American-owned passenger rail car plant in suburban Columbus.

While Amtrak has projected the service to generate only about $12 million annually -- far short of the roughly $29 million in annual operating expenses -- the state's application said it would fill the gap with $7 million to $8 million in Ohio Department of Transportation funds and $8.3 million from rail initiatives such as advertising, assessments and public-private agreements.

The issue of providing an ongoing subsidy for passenger rail threatened to derail Strickland's 3C rail plan when lawmakers debated the idea during hearings in 2009.

The 3C Corridor is an attempt to return regular passenger rail service to the state since Amtrak stopped it in the 1970s. The hope is that the corridor would eventually fit into a larger national train network that would go west to Chicago and east to New York.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

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