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Ohio eyes creative ways to pay for passenger train

(The Associated Press circulated the following story by Matt Leingang on February 2, 2010.)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio is looking at other states for creative ways to pay for a new passenger train service connecting Cleveland and Cincinnati, hoping to minimize political fights over the issue.

Everything from advertising, naming rights and franchise fees for Wi-Fi and food service is on the table, said Stu Nicholson, spokesman for the Ohio Rail Development Commission, the state agency in charge of the project.

In Oregon, fees from vanity license plates subsidize the cost of running Amtrak trains. Michigan uses a portion of gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees, and Maine uses a mix of federal grants and a sales tax on car rentals.

Many states, though, still rely on their general budgets to keep trains running, which Ohio transportation officials would rather avoid amid the state's declining revenues and recent budget deficits.

President Barack Obama said last week that Ohio will get $400 million in federal stimulus money to launch a 79 mph startup rail service that will run on freight tracks connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati, beginning in 2012. Thirteen passenger rail corridors in 31 states will receive grants, billed as a down payment for a future high-speed network.

Yet some Ohio Republican lawmakers have raised questions about how to pay for the state's estimated $17 million annual operating subsidy. Gas tax money can't be used. The Ohio Constitution requires revenue from the state's 28-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax to be used only on highway projects.

Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, has called the subsidy a modest amount compared with the hundreds of millions that Ohio spends on highways.

Fourteen states pay Amtrak to operate passenger routes, and relying on general revenue hasn't been easy for some.

A budget fight in Missouri forced the state in the early 1990s to reduce Amtrak service from twice daily operations to one train. The Kansas City-to-St. Louis route has a current state subsidy of $9 million.

"We go to the Legislature every year for that, and sometimes that's a challenge, no question about it," said Brian Weiler, a director with the Missouri Department of Transportation. The political debate is not Republican versus Democrat but with sections of the state that aren't on the 250-mile route and question what's in it for them, he said.

Oregon moved away from using its state budget to pay for Amtrak service several years ago when the Legislature approved covering the cost with fees collected on personalized license plates.

The two-year $100 plate fee covers almost all of the state's $5 million annual train subsidy for service between Portland and Eugene, said state rail planner Bob Melbo.

Some states have no constitutional restrictions on using gas-tax revenue for passenger rail. North Carolina, for example, pays for its $5 million train subsidy out of the state's highway fund.

Maine, which has a $7 million annual subsidy for Amtrak trains between Portland and Boston, covers 80 percent of the cost with money from a federal program that supports projects that reduce highway congestion and improve air quality.

"These days, you have to be creative when you're looking for revenue," said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

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