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Ohio’s 3C rail plan clears first hurdle

(The following story by Jon Craig appeared on the Cincinnati Enquirer website on April 20, 2010.)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A $25 million engineering, environment and design study for the proposed $400 million 3C statewide passenger rail plan was narrowly approved by the Ohio Controlling Board on Monday, by a 4-3 vote along political party lines.

Spending any other federal money on the project, after the nine-month study, will require five votes on the board, an oversight arm of the state legislature.

The board's president, Joe Secrest — a Democratic appointee of Gov. Ted Strickland — joined all three Democratic state legislators on the board to release federal money for the study.

The board's three Republican state legislators voted against the spending request.

More than an hour of the one -our, 45-minute discussion focused on whether a "supermajority" of five votes was needed under state law just to approve the study.

State Sen. David Goodman, a Republican from New Albany and the only lawyer on the Controlling Board, said the 4-3 vote was illegal, violates the Ohio Constitution and could lead to a lawsuit.

State Rep. Clayton Luckie, D-Dayton, insisted the simple majority vote was legal, saying he was disappointed all three Republicans on the board voted to block the study.

"They have a number of questions about rail in Ohio, but then vote against the very study that would give them the answers," Luckie said. "That smacks of being opposed just for the sake of being opposed."

But Goodman and other Republicans said the simple majority vote violates a provision in House Bill 2, the state transportation budget, that calls for a 5-2 "supermajority" vote to release capital improvement funds to develop passenger rail, requiring support from at least one Senate Republican.

Jennifer Farmer, legislative affairs director for the Ohio Department of Transportation, told Goodman and the rest of the board that ODOT has answered every question it can in the absence of this study, which will include aerial views of the so-called 3C corridor, a 255-mile freight rail line that runs from Cincinnati to Cleveland via Dayton and Columbus.

"A preliminary study is not a capital improvement," Farmer said. "We're not asking for infrastructure."

Farmer said reviving Amtrak passenger rail across Ohio will reduce pollution, ease highway congestion and serve an increasing number of Ohioans who do not own cars. The project also entails expanding capacity for freight trains.

But Farmer said ODOT can't move forward on the rail project without further study.

She and other ODOT officials assured legislators that the study does not require Ohio to build the passenger rail line, also financed with federal stimulus money.

State Rep. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark, said he thinks Monday's slim vote will ultimately be litigated in court, possibly by a lawsuit filed by a private group, or be subject to an investigation of the Ohio inspector general.

The board approved a $23 million contract with Parsons Brinckerhoff. The New York-based construction management company, also known as PB America, is involved in rail projects in California, Florida and Illinois.

A separate $2 million contract went to CH2M Hill Inc. of Columbus. The ODOT representatives said Parsons Brinckerhoff outscored other companies seeking to conduct the study in every category. Ken Prendergast, executive director of All Aboard Ohio, said he's "completely baffled why anyone would vote against this."

Prendergast said the study will provide Republicans and Democrats with answers to questions they have been asking, without hurting the state's finances or requiring Ohio to build anything.

The Controlling Board's 4-3 majority would shift from Democrat to Republican if Strickland loses re-election to Republican John Kasich on Nov. 2, or if Republicans regain a majority of the Ohio House, where Democrats hold 53 of 99 seats.

The Ohio Senate is controlled by Republicans, who hold 21 of 33 seats. All Ohio House seats, and half the Senate seats, are up for election this fall.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

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