Intercity Rail Ohio Pittsburgh

Ohio Hub Advances as Passenger Rail Connections to Toledo and Pittsburgh Studied

» 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

Amtrak Intercity Rail Ohio

Despite Federal Investment, Ohio 3C Corridor Under Threat from State Republicans

» Republicans on state board could overrule use of funds for new rail service between Cincinnati and Cleveland.

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

High-Speed Rail Honolulu Light Rail Midwest High-Speed Rail Ohio Texas

Intercity Rail in Texas, Ohio; Changes to Honolulu's Rail Plan

Ohio’s Governor Ted Strickland prioritizes new “3-C” rail connection between Cincinnati and Cleveland, through ColumbusOhio Hub Map

In yesterday’s State of the State address, Governor Ted Strickland (D) announced that he’d be working towards the development of a new rail corridor – the 3C – between Cincinnati and Cleveland, via Dayton and Columbus, connecting the states’ four largest metropolitan areas and implementing the first phase 0f the Ohio Hub plan.

This will be the first time in forty years that Ohio’s major cities have been connected by rail – and will mark the first rail service for Columbus, the state capital, in decades. According to the Toledo Blade, however, residents of the state’s fifth largest metro area were a bit dismayed by the lack of proposed service for Toledo. On the other hand, the Ohio Hub’s second phase proposes improving the existing train line between Cleveland and Chicago, which would serve Toledo. And while service to Toledo already exists, there is none to Columbus currently, so the 3C line probably makes the most sense as a first phase.

The plan Mr. Strickland wants to implement would rely on economic stimulus funds from the federal government, but it would not produce high-speed rail. Rather, it would allow for Amtrak-style service at speeds of 60 to 90 mph along the corridor. Ultimately, the Ohio Hub would form a part of the greater Midwest High-Speed Rail system. (Perhaps the system should actually be referred to as Midwest “High-Speed” Rail?)

Texan rail advocates pitch their “T-Bone” plan to the state legislatureTexas T-Bone Map

The Houston Chronicle reports that the Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation, generator of the Texas T-Bone plan, is actively pushing its project for a true high-speed rail connection (200 mph) between Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio, with a spur running from Temple to Houston.

The proposed project, whose price tag is likely to run in the $12 to $18 billion range, could be completed by 2020 and would represent the state’s second serious attempt at implementing a high-speed rail system after the early-1990s Texas TGV project failed because of its inability to receive enough funds from private sources (that proposal was supposed to be funded entirely through non-governmental money).

This time, the project won’t face opposition from now-neutral Southwest Airlines, as the Texas TGV did. And the federal government’s willingness to open its coffers to high-speed rail investment suggests that the T-Bone may in fact find the funds it needs to be implemented. Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) has expressed his support of the project, though he’s been unwilling to commit state resources to the project thus far, convinced instead that as the state becomes more populated, the project will be able to pay for itself.

Let it be known that the transport politic considers it highly unlikely for a major high-speed rail investment such as this to ever be constructed with solely private funds.

Honolulu’s 20-mile proposed rail system to be re-routed via airport and Pearl Harbor

Say Yes to the Honolulu Rail System blog reports that the Honolulu City Council voted yesterday in favor of a change in the planned routing of the city’s rail system, which is currently being planned. Instead of running along Salt Lake Boulevard, the line will now be redirected via the Honolulu airport and Pearl Harbor, adding a predicted 8,000 daily riders and increasing the system’s cost by $200 million. With a total project cost of more than $5 billion, this represents chump change.

This change has been under consideration since the week after the election, when Mayor Mufi Hannemann suggested that it would make more sense to include airport access in the first phase of the project, rather than as a spur to be built in the future, as it would add significant ridership and help residents and tourists alike get to the airport, which is a huge economic generator for the region as a whole. The Salt Lake alignment now becomes a potential future extension.

Images above: Ohio Hub from Ohio DOT; Texas T-Bone corridor from THSRTC