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Ohio Gov. Strickland pushes ahead with high speed passenger rail plan

(The Associated Press Writer circulated the following story by Matt Leingang on April 8, 2010.)

COLUMBUS, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland signaled Thursday he is willing to push ahead with a plan to restore passenger rail service from Cleveland to Cincinnati with or without Republican help.

His administration said it will take the project to the state Controlling Board on April 19, asking it to release $25 million in federal stimulus money needed to complete final engineering and design work.

Democrats control the panel 4-3, which should mean a clear victory for the Democratic governor, his spokeswoman said.

But bipartisan support from Republicans, who have been critical of the project, will be crucial for subsequent votes needed to buy trains and make track improvements.

State law says spending for "capital improvements" is subject to a supermajority vote of at least five members.

The Ohio Department of Transportation considers capital improvements to be physical assets _ equipment or construction, spokesman Scott Varner said.

Since the initial $25 million is for engineering and planning, a supermajority vote is not needed, but the administration will continue to seek Republican support, said Strickland spokeswoman Amanda Wurst.

Senate President Bill Harris, a key Republican who is skeptical of ridership projections showing 478,000 passengers in the first year, believes the governor is trying to use a technicality in the law to barrel ahead, said his spokeswoman, Maggie Ostrowski.

Harris has said the administration is trying to move forward without answering his many concerns, including how the state will pay for long-term operating expenses. He doesn't believe further studies will answer the right questions, Ostrowski said.

Transportation Director Jolene Molitoris, who met with Harris last month, has said the final engineering and design work _ which is required by federal law _ will give Ohio the information it needs to refine the rail plan.

Any stimulus money that Ohio turns down will be given to another state, according to the Federal Rail Administration.

President Barack Obama in January awarded Ohio $400 million in stimulus money for a startup service connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati with trains that reach 79 mph.

Strickland sees the project as laying the foundation for a higher-speed rail service with future branches connecting the rest of the state, along with networks in the Midwest and East Coast.

Amtrak released a study in September concluding that the 255-mile Cleveland-to-Cincinnati route has the demographics needed for successful operations, including population density and a concentration of colleges and universities.

Annual ticket sales are estimated at $12 million, with the state responsible for an additional $17 million operating subsidy.

Friday, April 9, 2010

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