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Passenger rail raises many questions

At a press conference at the Statehouse in late January, Governor Strickland joined several federal, state and local officials to celebrate the announcement that Ohio was awarded $400 million in federal stimulus money to launch passenger rail service linking Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton by 2012.

The governor, who had been lobbying the Obama Administration for more than a year to secure federal funds for the proposed 3C rail project, called it an “historic” day for Ohio.

But lost in the pomp surrounding the announcement were answers to some important questions that many of my colleagues and I believe must be addressed before Ohio spends even $1 on the project, including what it will cost and who will use it.

I have also heard from Ohioans across the 17th Senate District and other parts of the state who are confused about the details of the proposal and concerned about their tax dollars going to support passenger rail.

The Strickland administration has labeled the planned 3C service as “high-speed rail,” but the average speed of the train, when you include stops, is 39 miles per hour.

At that pace, it would take six and a half hours to travel from Cleveland to Cincinnati. The same trip in a car may take four and a half hours.

In addition, with only four trains in service at any given time, there would be a very limited departure and arrival schedule. If you wanted to go to Cleveland and back from Cincinnati to watch a baseball game, shop or conduct business, you most likely would have to stay the night.

The 3C would not be like trains in many other major urban centers across the country which come and go every 20 or 30 minutes.

So, with the slow pace and limited departure schedule, what is the incentive for Ohioans to use passenger rail?

The cost of the project is also a major issue, particularly at a time when the state is expected to face a multi-billion structural deficit when it comes time to draft the next two-year budget in 2011.

Even if these trains attract riders, there will be a need for the state to provide a subsidy to keep them running, which according to a study by Amtrak, could reach $17 million per year.

Other analysts believe the amount could end up being much higher. This money would presumably have to come from the state’s general revenue fund and could take away dollars from education or medical care for the poor.

Further, the Strickland administration has appeared to have little idea of what the final 3C project is going to cost.

The governor has said that the $400 million Ohio received from the federal government in January will be enough to purchase rail cars, upgrade existing freight railroad tracks and cover other expenses necessary to get passenger train service up and running.

But less than a year ago, the governor said the plan was going to cost $250 million.

Three months later, supporters said it would cost $400 million, two months later it was $343 million and one month later the Administration asked the federal government for $564 million.

Ohio rail advocates say that the governor’s 3C train proposal is the first step toward faster rail service in Ohio that would reach speeds of 110 mph. and attract three times the number of passengers, according to the Amtrak study.

But this upgrade to high speed rail has been estimated to cost $1.5 billion. Where are we going to get that money?

Senate President Bill Harris recently sent a letter to Gov. Strickland which outlined these and several other important questions that need to be addressed before the state moves forward with the 3C rail project.

For instance, what additional studies will be required before the state knows the true costs of the project?

The Amtrak study, which the Strickland administration has used to cite potential costs and predict ridership, specifically says that it is “not intended to be an in-depth, consultant-type” evaluation, and instead, should serve as a “barometer” for “whether the proposed project appears to be viable and worthy of further study and development.”

In addition, the Amtrak study says that the financial information they provided was for “illustrative purposes only” and “has been based upon the hypothetical 12-month operation of the completed 3C Corridor.” So, when will the state have more concrete financial projections that give us better information on which to make our decisions?

During debate on the state transportation budget early last year, Senate Republicans worked to insert a provision that said any money for passenger rail service must first be approved by a super-majority of the state Controlling Board.

As a member of the bipartisan, seven-member Board, which reviews state agency contracts and other spending requests, I will have a direct role in deciding the fate of the governor’s 3C project.

There are many legitimate issues that need to be addressed before the Controlling Board considers this long-term financial commitment.

I look forward to getting answers to these important questions from the Strickland Administration in the coming weeks and continuing the discussion about the merits of 3C passenger rail.

John A. Carey is a member of the Ohio Senate and represents the 17th District. He can be reached at Ohio Senate, Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio 43215 or by phone at (614) 466-8156.