Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Commuter Rail Moves Another Step Closer to Reality

Good News via the Columbus Dispatch. 

Ohio getting $400 million in federal rail money
Obama will announce grants Thursday in Florida
Wednesday,  January 27, 2010 3:25 PM
Updated: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 05:51 PM

Ohio's long-planned passenger rail corridor is about to get a $400 million federal boost.

President Obama is going to Florida on Thursday to reveal how his administration will divvy up $8 billion in high-speed rail funding, but the good news will whistle all the way up to the Buckeye State, say Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rep Mary Jo Kilroy, D-Columbus.

Ohio's plan for passenger rail service linking Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Dayton is going to get a significant share of that funding, said Brown, though he said he didn't know precisely how much.
But a separate, well-placed federal source told The Dispatch this afternoon that the figure will be $400 million.

"This is some of the best news we have had in a long time," Brown said. "If I put my ear down to the rail I think I hear a train coming."

Ohio officials are banking on federal stimulus money for most or all of the estimated $517.6 million they say they need to improve existing freight rail to passenger standards and to buy trains.

Kilroy said that the Obama administration is rewarding Ohio for being "the best place in the country for rail service restoration, expansion, high speed manufacturing," and for being a state that "has a labor force that is just right for these types of investments in our infrastructure."

An Amtrak study last fall said about 478,000 passengers would ride medium-speed trains connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati. The line would require about $17 million a year in subsides.
Ohio has not had passenger rail service linking its three largest cities since 1971.

Brown said he has lobbied the Obama administration for months to give a healthy share of the $8 billion -- part of the $787 billion stimulus package -- to Ohio. Over the past week Brown said he has personally spoken to Obama, Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. The president, Brown said, was "optimistic" that Ohio's rail corridor would get the funding it needs.

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will make the rail money announcement in Tampa, a day after the president's State of the Union address.

If the Ohio lawmakers and sources are correct, Ohio would be one of 13 major projects expected to receive a share of the funding, with money going to projects in 31 states in all. Florida, site of the announcement, apparently will get a good-sized chunk of rail money, and California also is expected to land a major haul.

The Obama administration says the projects will help spur construction and other project-related jobs in the short run and prove a long-term boost to economic development efforts in those areas because of the improved transportation systems.

Critics have suggested that the ridership numbers probably are inflated since the trains would average only about 40 mph along the entire route, a time that includes stops.

Ultimately, state officials hope the medium-speed rail will spur interest in a faster line, averaging 71 mph, that would cost $1.53 billion. The faster trains would attract more than three times as many passengers, according to the Amtrak study.

Officials have said that if Ohio gets federal funding for its medium-speed rail project, the trains could be up and running by the middle of next year.

In applying for stimulus funding, state officials have suggested that Ohio should stand a good chance because it's among the most populated corridors in the country without passenger service. That is a point Brown said he made to federal officials.

Critics question whether the Ohio rail corridor would provide much of an economic development boost to the state, and Republicans have criticized the stimulus package as containing too much government spending and not enough of the tax cuts the GOP contends would be more effective in creating new jobs.

Brown contends the federal stimulus spending on rail is evidence that the Obama administration wants to spend more on the nation's infrastructure needs and less on "tax cuts for the rich and the war in Iraq."
"This has been a long time coming," Brown said. "We have been pushing hard on this."