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Passenger rail under unprecedented attack in Ohio

(All Aboard Ohio issued the following press release on March 22, 2011.)

CINCINNATI, Ohio — The Cincinnati Streetcar, the Ohio Department of Transportation’s highest-ranking transportation project pending anywhere in the state, is being singled out by an unprecedented attack by the Ohio General Assembly.

In a proposed amendment to ODOT’s biennial budget request, the Ohio Senate Transportation Committee is expected to approve today an omnibus amendment which includes provision SC-0257-1. A summary of that provision says it “prohibits state or federal funds appropriated by the state from being used for the Cincinnati streetcar project.”

The proposed amendment will likely be part of the committee’s final ODOT budget bill later today. After today, it will go to the full Senate. Then it will go to the House, which could either accept it as-is, or if it finds the bill substantially different from the version it passed last week, it could assign the bill to a conference committee.

The Cincinnati Streetcar was ranked as the state’s top transportation project based on economic development, cost-effectiveness and environmental impact criteria by the Transportation Review Advisory Council, a non-political review board established by state law in 1997. The TRAC was created, urged in part by then-ODOT Director Jerry Wray, to remove politics from the state’s transportation project selection process. Wray returned as Gov. John Kasich’s ODOT director this year.

“So if you suddenly don’t like the process established by law and that has worked well for 14 years under Democrats and Republicans, you change the process,” said Ken Prendergast, executive director of All Aboard Ohio. “This is like saying we didn’t like who won the Super Bowl, so we’re going to re-write the record books.”

The Cincinnati Streetcar is seeking $36.8 million in federal transportation funds administered by the TRAC, which had already recommended by an 8-0 vote in support of that funding in December. These are not state funds, but state-administered transportation funds. If they don’t go to the streetcar, they will go to a lower-ranking road project.

“If state officials really want to save taxpayers’ money, they should cut from the bottom-ranked projects, not from the top,” Prendergast added. “I’ve been involved in transportation advocacy for nearly 30 years, and I’ve never seen such a blatant attempt to discriminate against rail projects like this.”

Furthermore, affected voters don’t want rail projects singled out by laws either. By a margin of 55% to 45%, Cincinnati voters in November 2009 turned down an opposition proposal to require passenger rail projects seeking city funding to be uniquely subjected to a public vote. Meanwhile, low-ranking taxpayer-funded road projects like State Route 32 in Cincinnati’s Eastern Corridor are left unscathed.

By comparison, two studies by the internationally reputable firm HDR estimate that the streetcar will stimulate new Downtown/Over-The-Rhine development worth $1.5 billion, or roughly 15 times the cost of the streetcar.

“As young Ohioans flee to vibrant cities that offer transportation choices, as Baby Boomers face a future of house arrest without options to cars, and as all Ohioans face immobility from worsening global petroleum constraints, this amendment by the Ohio General Assembly to punish a very specific transportation project is worse than counter-intuitive. It’s downright mean.”

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

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