MOUNT VERNON — Passenger rail service in Ohio moved one step closer to being a reality with the announcement that Ohio has been awarded $400 million for a line that would connect Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.
Speaking in a conference call with reporters, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown said “this is perhaps the most important announcement since President Obama took office.
“This will demonstrate that we can overcome the economic difficulties that we face,” said Brown. “We have left our children and grandchildren with an infrastructure deficit. Improving infrastructure we know creates jobs ... helps American paychecks go further.”
Brown said the rail line will create jobs for construction workers, engineers and factory workers who will produce the rail cars.
“We expect more rail cars to be produced in Ohio, which is the kind of manufacturing jobs we want,” he said.
U.S. Railcar LLC is looking to build a $14 million factory in Columbus that would make diesel-fueled passenger cars and employ about 160 people.
Brown estimates the expanded rail service will create more than 16,000 permanent jobs; Gov. Ted Srickland’s estimate is more conservative, up to 11,000 jobs.
The $400 million in stimulus funds is only part of the $564 million Ohio requested. In its feasibility study released in September 2009, Amtrak estimated the rail service would have to be subsidized by $17 million annually.
“We will work closely with stakeholders and the governor to make sure the money is available to operate these lines,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who joined Brown on the conference call. “We have a commitment from the community and commitment from leaders in the state to make it happen.”
In addition, LaHood said, there is another $2.5 billion in Congress’ upcoming appropriations bill that will be allocated to national rail travel.
Matt Dietrich, executive director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission, said the Ohio Department of Transportation has room in its budget to provide about $8 million. Revenue is also expected to be generated through advertising, franchise fees, food and beverage services and federal grants.
Gas tax money cannot be used because, according to Ohio’s Constitution, it can only be used on highway projects.
Brown said the $400 million is enough to begin work on repairing tracks, straightening curves in order to reach 70 mph, and getting “big city stations up in order to get the track going.”
“The goal is planning for economic development in the future and getting people to work right now,” he said.
He said the highway system is subsidized, and has social costs, such as pollution, as well.
Plans call for the 255-mile route to have six stops: two Cleveland, one in Columbus and Dayton, and two in the Cincinnati area. As the service is developed, more stops could be added. LaHood said it was similar to when the interstate highway system was started.
“Because some location is not included today, it doesn’t mean it will be so in the future,” he said.
Brown said additional stops in the future could include Springfield, and one possibly in the Crestline, Galion or Shelby areas. He added that one of the next lines to be considered would be Cleveland-Youngstown-Pittsburgh. As part of the Midwest corridor, the goal is to connect Ohio with Chicago in the West, and New York City in the East.
“We can’t have a national rail system without Ohio,” said Brown.
Amtrak’s study showed a ridership of 478,000. LaHood has no doubt the riders will be there.
“It’s just like a state-of-the-art road system,” he said. “As soon as we have a state-of-the-art passenger rail service, they will use it. This railway system will become an economic engine and corridor for jobs. People will use it because they are tired of getting stuck in their car.
“This will be oversubscribed,” he added.
“It may take a few years,” said Brown. “But people are tired of driving and congestion when they drive. ... And when gas prices increase, people turn to other modes of travel.”
In addition, he said, for an $18 ticket from Columbus to Cincinnati, or $20 from Columbus to Cleveland, “you can’t drive anywhere in your car for that price, when you include wear and tear on your car.”
Not everyone is as excited as Brown and LaHood about the proposed service. State Sen. Tom Patton, chairman of the Senate’s Highways and Transportation Committee, said he’d support the train project as long as it doesn’t create a drag on taxpayers. But he’s also critical of spending money on passenger trains at a time when transit agencies in Cleveland and other cities are cutting back on bus services that draw many more riders.
In a press release, State Sen. Jon Husted said, “I believe the construction and operation of this planned rail line could serve as one of the biggest money pits in Ohio history. ... I predict that start up costs will be greater than estimated, fewer people will ride it than projected, and public subsidy to operate it will be greater than reported.”