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Ohio eyes phase two of '3C' passenger rail plan

(The following story by David Patch and Jim Provance appeared on the Toledo Blade website on July 16, 2010.)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — While passenger trains are still at least two years away from running on a "Three-C" corridor for which Ohio has obtained federal stimulus money, state officials have begun looking at what they hope will be a second phase, which would include two Toledo routes.

The Ohio Rail Development Commission has signed a $7.8 million contract with AECOM, a Los Angeles engineering firm, to assess what would need to be done to institute 110-mph passenger trains on four routes, including Detroit-Toledo-Cleveland and Toledo-Columbus.

The study also would address a Cleveland-Pittsburgh route and upgrading the Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati route, over which trains are planned to run at a top speed of 79 mph to 110 mph.

"The Ohio Hub plan is the long-term, high-speed rail future plan that Ohio has been advancing," said Scott Varner, a spokesman at Ohio Department of Transportation headquarters in Columbus. "This is the next step in that."

The study will be paid for with federal planning money allocated to Ohio. AECOM is expected to take a year to produce a report.

AECOM was chosen from among five applicants, the ODOT spokesman said, because of its experience in high-speed rail planning in the Midwest, including some of the original work on the so-called Ohio Hub plan.
"They are also a national leader in ridership and revenue forecasting," Mr. Varner said. "Ohio used them for ridership estimates on the Three-C. They have more than 25 years of experience, and their forecasts have only been about 4 percent off."

Although the two-year state transportation budget approved more than a year ago authorized Ohio to seek federal funding only for the Cleveland-Cincinnati route, it made clear a corridor linking Columbus and Toledo should be the next priority.

Toledo has two daily Amtrak round trips to Cleveland, as part of longer routes linking Chicago and the East Coast, but the trains run mostly during the wee hours and have top speeds of 79 mph.

"The Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority welcomes the opportunity to build on the success of the busiest Amtrak station in Ohio, located here in downtown Toledo," said Matt Sapara, the port authority's development director. "We have long recognized that high-speed rail utilizing Toledo can provide new and needed opportunities for our region."

Ohio received approval for $400 million in federal funding for the "Three-C" project. The next step for that project is completion of $25 million engineering and design study for that corridor alone, a study still to be approved by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Gov. Ted Strickland has billed fast passenger rail as something that can create hundreds of construction jobs and spark new economic development.

But political certainty abounds around the project.

Even if Governor Strickland is re-elected in November, he will need support from Senate Republicans on the state Controlling Board, a seven-member panel that approves major construction spending and equipment purchases. Republicans, including GOP gubernatorial candidate John Kasich, have criticized the rail plan, questioned ridership estimates, and said the initial service would be too slow.

About six million people live along the Cleveland-Cincinnati route, making it one of the most heavily populated corridors without rail service in the Midwest.

Early estimates for the Three-C route predict 478,000 riders in the first year of operations.

Friday, July 16, 2010

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