COLUMBUS, Ohio – There is no shortage of issues that divide incumbent Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland from his GOP challenger John Kasich, but of all of them, Ohio’s proposal to restart passenger rail service linking its three largest cities provides no better example of which candidate stands on which side of these controversial and costly tracks.
Wrong side of the tracks?
While Gov. Strickland and his state rail bosses have pushed the idea of restarting passenger rail traffic again linking Cincinnati to Columbus to Cleveland with intermediate stops in Dayton and Spring going on three years now, after such service ceased more than 38 years ago, Republican John Kasich, a former 18-year congressman representing Central Ohio, has not only called Strickland’s plan “one of the dumbest ideas” he’s ever heard of but vows to derail it should voters in November install him as Ohio’s next governor.
In a televised interview last week, Kasich, who despite being not well known outside his district, has run virtually neck and neck with Strickland, elected in 2006, in most responsible polls.
Kasich told one Columbus TV personality that if he becomes governor, the 3-C proposal, a 256-mile route project that was awarded $400 million last February by the Federal Railroad Administration to spend on engineering, design and trainsets related to its first phase, would be stopped dead in its tracks.
It’s “one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever heard,” Kasich told NBC’s Colleen Marshal, host of the station’s “The Spectrum” show that features newsmakers speaking on a variety of topics.
Sherrrod Brown, Republicans differ on 3-C
Democrats, in general, support the train proposal. Ohio’s junior U.S. Senator, Sherrod Brown, has said that investment in public transit could drive demand for equipment and component parts produced in Ohio, retaining jobs and growing new ones. Pointing to research drawing on work done by researchers at Duke University, the Economic Policy Institute and the Ohio Rail Development Commission, Brown, a major advocate for a new American manufacturing policy, predicted Ohio would be in the top five states benefiting from more passenger rail. The Surface Transportation Act, a big federal spending bill that Democrats and Republicans alike normally relish because it can bring money and jobs to their districts, is scheduled for a September reauthorization. “If we rerouted some of the act’s highway funding to public transit, it could produce 250,000 more jobs and help rebuild the supply base for railway manufacturing, a sector the United States once led and then lost,” Brown said.
But Republican critics of the train do not shy away from commenting on it and drawing a critical distinction between passenger service and freight service. “39 MPH passenger trains have been obsolete for well over 50 years, but rail is still incredibly important to Ohio job creation, moving raw material and finished goods in the freight system. All manufacturing jobs are dependent on demand for the product being produced. If 1930’s speed trains had high demand, proponents wouldn’t need a $17 million annual subsidy from taxpayers,” said John Damschroder, Communications Director for Steve Stivers, who hopes this year to unseat the Democratic candidate, Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy, who beat him two years ago by about 2,000 votes.
Passenger trains, operated by Amtrak, the nation’s passenger rail service company, will necessarily have to encroach on freight rail tracks owned and maintained by freight rail companies, who say slow passenger trains will only cause problems as demand for shipping by rail rises, as is expected.
Other Republican critics like Mike Dawson, a former communication staffer for Gov. Bob Taft, have tracked the project since its inception and believe it is unwise, impractical and would take decades to achieve the benefits 3-C supporters say are inherent in train transportation.
Dawson told NBC reporter Patrick Preston that he wants the Ohio Department of Transportation to refrain from spending $25 million for a preliminary study on the project until voters weigh in in November.
“We’re 78 days away from the election …It makes absolutely no sense to go ahead until you know who the next governor is,” Dawson said in the interview. “You can delay that decision until Nov. 5th. It would be a travesty to waste $25 million on this study if John Kasich is elected and he’s going to kill the project.”
ODOT full steam ahead
The $25 million in federal funding comes out of the $400 million awarded to Ohio by the FRA. Ohio’s transportation department, headed by Jolene Molitoris, a former FRA administrator, intends to contract with international engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff to continue design and engineering work. But according to NBC’s report, ODOT is still waiting for the FRA to give it approval to do so.
Scott Varner, ODOT’s chief spokesperson, said he expects the FRA to give Ohio the go-ahead on spending $25 million by the end of September.
Varner told Preston that Kasich’s opinion does not influence ODOT’s plans, and said ODOT will begin spending the $25 million well before Election Day on November 2nd.
The 3-C train, based on first-phase projections produced for state officials by transportation consultants, will have an average speed of 39 mph, with trains potentially reaching a speed of 79 mph, and will take more than six and one-half hours to travel between system end points.
Critical to the debate on whether its a brilliant or dumb idea is the fact, based on state information, that a yearly state subsidy of at least $17 million, the difference between operating expenses and revenues, will be required from the state budget each and every years.
Ohio officials are currently girding for next year’s battle of the budget, when an $8.4 billion budget hole will confront the next governor and General Assembly.
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