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Molitoris defends Ohio’s high speed rail project

(The Associated Press circulated the following story by Matt Leingang on March 18, 2010.)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A plan to restore passenger train service in Ohio is economically sound and has such strong ridership potential that an early estimate of 478,000 is probably low, the state's top transportation official said Wednesday in defending the project to a key Republican skeptic.

Jolene Molitoris, director of the state Transportation Department, met with Senate President Bill Harris, who last month issued a list of questions he had about the project. Republican support will be critical to the project's success, and debate over the issue at times has seemed more about partisan politics than policy.

Molitoris said the train project, funded with $400 million in federal stimulus money, is a historic opportunity that will create at least 225 immediate construction jobs and make up for years of not investing in passenger trains.

The plan calls for a startup, 79-mph service connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati. It would lay the foundation for a faster, higher-speed service with branches connecting to Chicago and the East Coast.

About 6 million people live along the Cleveland to Cincinnati corridor, making it one of the most heavily populated corridors without rail service in the Midwest. Fifteen states already have contracts with Amtrak to support the kind of conventional-speed service that Ohio is after.

Early estimates, based on an Amtrak study last fall, predict 478,000 riders in the first year of operations, which Molitoris said is conservative and will only grow as more stations are added.

The trains will attract thousands of Ohioans who don't have cars, including college students, she said.

Molitoris also tried to knock down criticism that the train service would be too slow. Critics have complained that trains running the entire route from Cleveland to Cincinnati would have an average speed of 39 mph.

The figure is misleading, Molitoris said, because the trains would run at top speeds of 79 mph throughout the corridor. However, the overall average speed won't be known until departure times and schedules are negotiated with CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp., freight companies that own most of the tracks and have pledged their support, she said.

Maggie Ostrowski, a spokeswoman for Harris, said nothing about the meeting with Molitoris changed the senator's mind. He remains skeptical about the project's viability but will take time to review all the information provided, she said.

Molitoris said she believes it is Ohio's obligation to put the stimulus dollars to work.

"If we do not, other states will use these federal resources to create jobs for their citizens," she said.

The state Controlling Board must approve all stimulus money for the train project. Democrats control the board 4-3, but they will need at least one Republican to vote yes because Senate Republicans placed an amendment in Ohio's transportation budget last year requiring a supermajority vote.

Molitoris asked Harris and Republicans on the Controlling Board to approve the first phase of the project - $25 million in stimulus money for final engineering and design work.

Harris would like more clarification before committing, Ostrowski said.

Past Republican administrations have studied and even promoted reviving passenger train service. For example, Gov. James Rhodes' administration developed some of the first passenger rail studies for the state 30 years ago, and Gov. Bob Taft's administration conducted another wide-ranging study in 2005.

But the debate today comes amid a critical election year in which Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, is running for re-election. The project, if successful, could also become the legacy of President Barack Obama's stimulus package in Ohio.

Some of the political rhetoric around the issue has been extreme.

A campaign flier for state Sen. Shannon Jones, a Republican from Springboro, refers to the project as Strickland's "Crazy Train."

Strickland has touted the project as something that can create 8,000 jobs in construction and private economic development around train stations, but that's only an estimate.

Republicans also have criticized the estimated $17 million subsidy that Ohio would need to pay to keep trains running each year. The state's rail plan outlines various revenue streams, including advertising and federal grants that the agency already has within its budget.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

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