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With Amtrak Funds Now Available, Will Ohio Expand Rail Service?

The federal government released guidelines on how to spend its $2.3 billion in Amtrak expansion money, but it’s not yet clear if Ohio will build new passenger rail service between its major cities.

An Amtrak rail car
One likelihood if Amtrak expands service in Cleveland: Trains that arrive during daylight hours. This photo was taken in 2007, during a trial period when the Lake Shore Limited, which travels between Chicago and the East Coast, arrived in Cleveland at 7 a.m.
Chuck Crow/TNS
(TNS) — The federal government Wednesday, Dec. 7, released guidelines for $2.3 billion in Amtrak expansion money, but it’s unclear whether Ohio will seek a portion to establish new passenger rail service between Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati.

Dan Tierney, spokesman for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, said the governor is awaiting answers to several key questions before making a decision about whether to seek federal money for expanded Amtrak service in the state.

“We do understand this is a once-in-a-decade or two opportunity for federal funding,” said Tierney. “We have not ruled it out, but we want to make sure the plan is feasible.”

Among the questions the governor wants answered:

  • How many riders would new service attract?
  • How fast would the trains go?
  • How would the service – expected to operate on tracks owned by private rail companies – impact freight traffic?
  • And what would the cost be to Ohio taxpayers?

Earlier this year, DeWine asked the Ohio Railroad Development Commission, which is part of the Ohio Department of Transportation, to study the possibility of Amtrak expansion throughout the state, given the $66 billion for rail service improvements included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by Congress a year ago.

This $2.3 billion is the first available for expanded intercity passenger rail service, part of a program to bring new routes to areas of the country that are underserved by train transportation.

It’s unclear when the state rail commission will finish its study. A spokeswoman for the agency did not respond to a request for comment.

There hasn’t been passenger rail service between Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati since the early 1970s.

Amtrak, in early 2021, identified the route as a top priority, given the anemic passenger rail options throughout Ohio.

But first, the state needs to express interest.

The deadline to apply for this first round of funding through the Federal Railroad Administration is March 7.

Stu Nicholson, executive director of All Aboard Ohio, a passenger-rail advocacy group, said the state needs to step up.

“This is going to be a very competitive process,” Nicholson said. “It behooves Governor DeWine and his administration to step up and get engaged in this process. If we don’t, we miss out and we wait longer for passenger trains. I would submit Ohio has waited long enough.”

Twelve years ago, under former Gov. Ted Strickland, the state received $400 million in federal funding to launch the 3-C route. Shortly after taking office, however, newly elected Gov. John Kasich famously returned the money to Washington because he was opposed to state support for passenger rail service.

Since then, Amtrak has revised its program to provide more financial support during a new route’s first five years, when ridership is typically still developing.

Nicholson said he had no doubt a new Cleveland- Columbus- Dayton- Cincinnati route would be successful, attracting as many as 1 million annual riders in its first year.

He also said passenger rail service doesn’t need to be faster than driving – but it does need to be competitive. And he said it would be, as improvements are made to existing track to allow trains to travel at higher speeds.

An Amtrak study released last year showed that travel time between Cleveland and Cincinnati would likely start at about 5 1/2 hours, reducing to 4 hours and 55 minutes as track improvements are made. The average drive time, according to the study, is 4 hours and 20 minutes.

If the state declines to apply for the money, Nicholson said local and regional government agencies could apply on their own.

For example, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, which guides transportation planning throughout Greater Cleveland, sent a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration in August expressing strong support for additional service along Ohio’s northern corridor. It advocated for new routes between Cleveland and Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., New York City and elsewhere.

Nicholson said Ohio can and should seek funding for more than one route.

“We’ve got a population that needs to be able to connect with jobs, education, health care, what have you,” he said. “We are foolish as a state if we let this pass and not take advantage of it.”

Currently, Amtrak runs two routes through Cleveland — the Lake Shore Limited, which travels from Boston and New York to Chicago, and the Capitol Limited, which travels between Chicago and Washington, D.C. A third route, the Cardinal, travels through southern Ohio, linking Chicago and New York via Cincinnati.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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