» Governor Ted Strickland’s push to connect state via intercity rail is likely to go beyond initial Cincinnati-to-Cleveland corridor.
Following through on a years-long promise to include fourth-city Toledo in the next phase of rail investment in Ohio, the administration of Governor Ted Strickland has announced the awarding to an engineering firm an $8 million study of future intercity routes that would connect the Lake Erie city to the rest of the Buckeye State. A line into Pittsburgh is also up for evaluation.
Because of its geographic position between the Chicago-based Midwest rail network and that of the East Coast focused in New York, Ohio could serve as an essential link in a national rail network if the state makes the right investments.
In January, Ohio received $400 million from the federal government to implement intercity rail service on the 256-mile 3C rail line between Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton — the state’s four largest metropolitan areas. According to current plans, initial 79 mph operations would begin in 2012 on an improved freight corridor, bringing trains to the state’s capital in Columbus for the first time since 1977. The 3C project does not qualify as high-speed rail under anyone’s definition, especially considering its 6h30 estimated travel time, but future investments could increase speeds to 110 mph. The FRA is expected to approve the first direct grants for the state sometime in the next few weeks.
The 3C corridor, however, is not the be-all and end-all, since it lacks connections to Toledo, Akron, and Canton, three other large metropolitan areas. In addition, it does not provide for direct links either to Pittsburgh (and the East Coast network) or Chicago, Detroit, and Indianapolis, three major Midwest cities. Thus the newly announced study, which builds upon the larger Ohio Hub proposal, illustrated above and studied repeatedly over the past decade.
Consultant AECOM will specifically consider potential upgrades for the 3C route, plus new 110 mph links between Detroit, Toledo, and Cleveland; Cleveland and Pittsburgh; and Toledo and Columbus.
The new study is the long-expected next step for Ohio, but it comes at a fortunate time for Governor Strickland, a Democrat who is running for reelection in a tightly contested race against Republican John Kasich. Depending on the timing of the study’s results, Strickland may be able to claim that his administration aims to spread rail throughout the state; Toledo was especially frustrated by the fact that it wasn’t included in the state’s initial priorities. Though the Ohio Hub’s current plan suggests that the next major investment in the state will be connection between Cleveland, Toledo, and Detroit (arguably the more important link from a national perspective), other sources suggest that the new study may prioritize a capital-centric line between Columbus and Toledo.
But Ohio is not steps away from a massive rail network. The 3C corridor has been subject to relentless criticism from state Republicans, who claim that it is a boondoggle since operations would require an annual state subsidy and train running times between termini in Cincinnati and Cleveland would be a full two hours longer than typical car travel. Republican Kasich has been no major supporter of rail (and has posted an anti-rail editorial from another source on his site), so if he were to win the election, the federal government’s $400 million grant and the 3C line in general could be abandoned, leaving any rail improvements considered in the new study by the wayside.
Nonetheless, assuming Strickland remains in the Governor’s office (no sure thing), rail service along 3C will begin as expected. All of the major connections considered in the Ohio Hub plan seem worthy of eventual use as part of the national rail network, especially those that eventually lead to major cities outside of the state, like Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Ohio is relatively dense and many of its cities, despite losing population in the last few decades, have strong urban cores (or at least the potential to restore them).
Moreover, Ohio’s position as the connection point between the Midwest and East Coast rail networks cannot be passed over; any trains between Chicago and the East Coast would have to pass through the state. As part of what is truly a national imperative to improve intercity rail service, the state has an obligation to restore its system. The 3C plan, followed by the investments to be proposed by AECOM’s study, are the right ways to begin.
Image above: Ohio Hub potential corridors, from Ohio DOT