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Ohio wants passenger trains to Toledo and Pittsburgh, too

(The Associated Press circulated the following story by Matt Leingang on July 15, 2010.)

COLUMBUS, Ohio Toledo and Pittsburgh are among the next cities that Ohio wants to connect as part of its developing passenger rail project, state transportation officials said today.

The state has signed a $7.8 million contract with an engineering firm to study new routes that would branch off from Ohio's marquee federal stimulus project -- a $400 million rail system with 79 mph trains connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati beginning in 2012.

The contract with AECOM, a Los Angeles-based company that has worked on California's planned high-speed rail system, will determine routes for a future 110 mph service on four corridors: Detroit-Toledo-Cleveland, Cleveland-Pittsburgh, Toledo-Columbus and Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati.

The federal government requires this kind of preliminary environmental impact study before funding can be approved. The study would likely take about a year, said Matt Dietrich, executive director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission.

President Barack Obama announced in January that he would give $400 million to Ohio for the 79 mph startup service from Cleveland to Cincinnati, part of $8 billion in stimulus grants for rail projects in the U.S.

Ohio has yet to spend the money. The state is waiting for the Federal Rail Administration to sign off on $25 million that will complete engineering and design work -- information that will identify track upgrades, pinpoint operating speeds along the route and set departure schedules.

Dietrich said he hopes to get federal approval in a few weeks.

The Federal Rail Administration on Monday approved $20 million for North Carolina to refurbish passenger coaches and locomotives, the first installment of $525 million in stimulus money to help that state increase top speeds to 90 mph on trains between Raleigh and Charlotte and double the number of round trips.

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat running for re-election, has billed his state's rail project as something that can create hundreds of construction jobs and spark new economic development in cities with train stations.

But there is some political uncertainty around the project.

Even if Strickland wins 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 complained that the initial service would be too slow.

About 6 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 predict 478,000 riders in the first year of operations, annual ticket sales at $12 million and the state responsible for an additional $17 million operating subsidy, according to an Amtrak study released last year.

Friday, July 16, 2010

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