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Editorial: High speed rail important to Ohio's future

(The following editorial appeared on the Akron Beacon-Journal website on September 20, 2010.)

AKRON, Ohio John Kasich refers derisively to ''the 39-mile-per-hour high-speed train.'' The Republican candidate for governor did so last week in his debate with Ted Strickland, the Democratic incumbent. He promised that if elected, he would declare ''dead'' the idea of passenger rail from Cleveland to Cincinnati, via Columbus and Dayton. He proposes an alternative use for the $400 million awarded by the federal government to launch the rail project. He would pour the money into roads and bridges.

Good luck with that. The U.S. Department of Transportation didn't make the grant because it was looking to burn money. The feds have in mind a much improved national system for passenger rail, and not for next year, or even the next decade. They are looking to 2025 and beyond, rightly viewing passenger rail as a necessary component of a transportation system that seeks fuel-efficiency, less congestion and diminished greenhouse gases.

Unfortunately, Kasich and others fail to see the potential, Ohio serving as a centerpiece of a national rail system. If anything, the absence of Ohio all but ensures the larger project will fall short, the country suffering a gaping hole, the Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati corridor remaining the largest population center in nation without passenger rail. Critics prefer to look backward, offering reminders of Ohioans rejecting support for similar projects. What they overlook is the altered energy and environmental landscape, the state and country benefiting ultimately from an investment beginning now.

Ted Strickland recognizes the value. The governor and his team gained approval from the State Controlling Board for spending an initial $25 million on planning and analyses, among other things, developing answers for questions posed by doubters. A week ago, state Sen. David Goodman, a New Albany Republican, proposed filing a lawsuit to prevent the project from moving forward. He argues the governor failed to gain the required supermajority of the controlling board.

Others ask: Why get started at all, in light of Kasich running ahead in the governor's race and his vehement opposition to the rail concept?

Worth reiterating is the way ahead if the state does launch the project. Those states making progress developing passenger rail have started slowly, gradually building a foundation, steadily adding capacity and passengers. Yes, they have begun in the realm of 39 mph. There is no other way. A state cannot just leap to trains running 110 mph. The cost is prohibitive. The complexities are great, including accommodations for essential freight service.

A key plateau is reaching speeds of 79 mph, an effective system in place with the goal of reaching 110 mph. No question, the system will require a public subsidy. Even the French and other highly developed rail networks overseas require such support. The thinking is, the countries receive a sound return in terms of their overall energy, environmental and transportation strategies.

Ohio would realize the same, the estimated $17-million-a-year subsidy affordable for the state. There was a consensus in the state Senate four years ago, senators voting 33-0 to seek federal funding for transportation planning that included the rail corridor. Now many of those same senators oppose spending $25 million to look at the prospects for passenger rail. They point to the many questions, but they resist pursuing answers. At the least, the state should strive to make an informed choice. That is what the initial money will help to deliver.

Monday, September 20, 2010

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