Of the corridors receiving multi-million dollar grants from the federal government last month for improved rail service, Ohio’s 3C line arguably provides the most bang for the buck. By 2012, at a cost of $400 million, the state will be able to reactivate passenger operations between Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, via Dayton — a service that’s been out of commission for decades. It will provide the first trains to the state capital since 1977.
In the process, the state will be able to connect the nation’s 24th, 26th, 32nd, and 61st largest metro areas, creating a linear conurbation of almost seven million people. It’s one of the most promising new rail lines in the United States.
Yet the federal grant, which offers enough money to buy trains and ready tracks and stations for passenger services, has not yet convinced reluctant Republican members of the state legislature to get on board. Afraid of being saddled with operations expenses for an indefinite period ahead, they may prevent the project from being implemented.
Republican concerns may be primarily motivated by partisan rancor, but the claimed benefits of the 3C system as currently designed are legitimately worth questioning.
Governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat who is running for reelection this fall, has been a strong supporter of the project for more than a year. Under his leadership, the state department of transportation has focused on the 3C line as the core of a statewide rail strategy called the Ohio Hub, envisioned as a connection between the East Coast rail network and the proposed Midwest High-Speed system. “If there aren’t those who are willing to get in and join the fight,” Mr. Strickland remarked recently in reference to those skeptical of the benefits of the rail service, “then at least get out of the way.”
In face of Republican opposition, Wisconsin legislators approved the receipt of a similar $822 million grant for rail service between Madison and Milwaukee last week.
Ohio State Senate President Bill Harris, a Republican, sent a letter to Governor Strickland yesterday, arguing that he would move to kill the project unless his concerns were addressed. The Ohio GOP has focused on the expected $17 million in annual operations subsidies necessary to keep the line running as a point of confrontation. A number of state legislators have also questioned whether ridership estimates — currently put at about 500,000 a year — are realistic.
Commuters will be able to drive or even ride a Greyhound bus between the affected cities more quickly than on the 3C train, which will be limited to an average speed of 39 mph and a top speed of 79 mph because of insufficient improvements to the existing freight tracks to be used for the service. Trains would run four round-trips a day on the 256 miles between Ohio’s two largest regions.
To move into the implementation phase, the 3C project will have to be approved by the State Controlling Board, which requires a super-majority of five out of seven votes to advance rail spending. Senate President Harris inserted language requiring the super-majority last year because of concerns about the project. The Controlling Board currently has a 4-3 Democratic majority, not enough to prevent Mr. Harris from encouraging a Republican block on the system.
Some GOP concerns about the project’s implementation are worthy of consideration. How many people will choose to ride the train between Cleveland and Cincinnati when the journey will take 6h30 to complete and the bus trip only requires five hours? Even if ridership estimates do play out as envisioned, should the state subsidize riders at an estimated $35 per journey?
An express trip between Paris and Lyon, cities which are separated by a larger distance than are Cleveland and Cincinnati, takes less than two hours on the TGV high-speed train. That service is highly profitable for French rail operator SNCF.
But proponents of improved rail service for Ohio argue that the 3C investment is simply the first step towards a renewed and eventually much faster high-speed line. Advocates of the Chicago-St. Louis service, which received a $1 billion grant last month, make a similar argument, despite clear questions about whether a slow operation will attract many riders. The much larger capital costs that would be necessary to connect Cleveland and Cincinnati in two hours — and each to Columbus in an hour or less — would produce a rail system capable of financing its own operations costs because of its ability to attract many more choice riders. A train traveling at an average speed of only 39 mph will never be able to do the same.
Nevertheless, the $17 million Ohio expects to invest each year in operating subsidies for the 3C line represents roughly half of one percent of the state’s $3 billion annual transportation budget. This commitment is not akin to a drug “addiction,” as is claimed by one Republican member of the Controlling Board. Where is the GOP outrage about unnecessary road construction? I certainly don’t hear it. Nor have Republicans been pushing wholeheartedly for a big enough rail investment to avoid those operations subsidies altogether.
Indeed, this hypocrisy when it comes to transportation spending, expressed over and over not only in Ohio but nationwide, makes the “fiscally conservative” argument against rail difficult to take seriously. It sounds far more like an argument against alternative transportation, point blank.
The 3C line will offer all the advantages of rail service over intercity bus lines, including improved comfort and better stations. Though it’s a modest beginning, getting it in the ground will convince people to get out of their cars, and it will give people without automobiles an increasing sense of mobility around the state — those benefits should not be dismissed. The 3C project is far from a high-speed line, but at least it’s the first step in what will be a long process. It’s better to get started when the federal government’s throwing around grant money.
Image above: Ohio 3C Rail Map, from Ohio Department of Transportation