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Feds boost rail funding; will Ohio sit this out, too?

In its 2018 appropriations bill for Transportation-Housing Urban Development (THUD), Congress is providing a major boost to passenger rail funding that will improve rail safety, reliability, convenience, accessibility and speed. But will Ohio sit out this opportunity as it did before by scuttling its 3C rail project in 2010?

The bill includes $2.813 billion for intercity passenger rail – an increase of $1.3 billion over last year! Urban and regional passenger rail, funded through transit appropriations, was also increased thereby providing older urban rail systems like the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority to maintain a state of good repair.

Also, subsidies for aviation and highways were increased without raising user fees to pay for them. Meanwhile Amtrak covers 95 percent of its costs from customer revenues and relies on a mostly private-sector owned and funded rail network.

Federal intercity rail funding includes $1.9 billion for Amtrak ($650 million for the Northeast Corridor and $1.3 billion for the National Network); $593 million for the Consolidated Rail Improvement, which includes $250 million for Positive Train Control implementation; $250 million for the State of Good Repair program; and $20 million for the Rail Restoration program, which will be instrumental in restoring rail service to the Gulf Coast and possibly daily Cardinal service. All of these are significant increases over 2017 funding levels and are consistent with levels authorized in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act that Congress passed in 2016 (see chart below).

Rail Passengers Association graphic

CLICK TO ENLARGE (Source: Rail Passengers Association)

Note that this doesn’t include already existing and substantial federal financing programs for passenger rail and station-area real estate development, namely the $35 billion Railroad Rehabilitation Improvement Financing (RRIF) available through the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Private Activity Bonds (PAB) from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Amtrak, Brightline, and other railroads have used these programs to expand, improve, or start new services.

The THUD bill also provides $13.5 billion in total budgetary resources for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) – $1 billion above the fiscal year 2017 enacted level and $2.3 billion above the Trump Administration’s request. Transit formula grants for urban and rural systems were increased by nearly $400 million to $9.7 billion – consistent with the FAST Act – to help local communities build, maintain, and ensure the safety of their mass transit systems.

More than $400 million was added to Capital Investment Grants transit projects, totaling $2.6 billion. “New Starts” projects are funded at $1.5 billion, Core Capacity projects at $716 million, and Small Starts projects at $400 million. These programs provide competitive grant funding for major transit capital investments – including light rail, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail – that are planned and operated by local communities. But the bill limits the federal match for “New Starts” projects to 51 percent, thus requiring communities and states to increase their funding shares if they want to access these federal dollars.

Lastly, Congress agreed to triple the funding for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, from $500 million in 2017 to $1.5 billion. TIGER program grants are intended to be used as “gap funding” – to fill the remaining gap in funding for multi-modal transportation projects that already are substantially funded.  This program will fund states’ and local communities’ most critical transportation projects, and language is included in the bill to ensure that at least 30 percent of these funds go to rural communities.

All Aboard Ohio’s assessment

Naturally, All Aboard Ohio is very happy that Congress is increasing funding for passenger rail, public transportation and multi-modal investment and rejected President Trump’s calls to slash federal funding. Congress is responding to the needs of its constituencies as our aging Baby Boomers demand more diverse mobility options, the younger generation seek to live in less car-dependent settings to reduce costs of living, and the urban and rural poor need much greater access to jobs (only 1-in-4 jobs in Ohio’s metro areas are accessible within a 90-minute one-way transit trip).

“We are grateful to the Republican-led Congress for providing a transportation policy direction to states like Ohio,” said All Aboard Ohio Executive Director Ken Prendergast. “Transportation and infrastructure investment is one area in which Congress is acting in a responsible, bipartisan manner. We encourage all Ohioans to thank their Congressperson and Senators for their vote to boost investment in a multi-modal transportation system that creates jobs and improves access to jobs.”

Unfortunately, Ohio appears ready to sit out this boost in funding for passenger rail and, to a large degree, for transit expansion as well. The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) and its Ohio Rail Development Commission have $0 in state matching funds budgeted for passenger rail to leverage a federal match. Furthermore, ODOT/ORDC have no funding-ready plans in place to legally tap the new federal dollars although one metropolitan planning organization (MPO), the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), is developing such a plan for Pittsburgh-Columbus-Chicago passenger rail. The lack of activity is not for a lack of needs, as All Aboard Ohio revealed in its Ohio Passenger Rail Assessment of Needs report a year ago. Several Ohio cities have passenger rail projects ready to go now and could benefit from these added funds.

“That report also showed what Ohio’s neighboring states are doing with passenger rail development, which is a lot,” Prendergast said. “And they have more funding-ready plans coming forward to further increase safety, service frequency and speeds above 100 mph to boost their economies. Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, Illinois, and now West Virginia are all in a position to use their passenger rail programs to leverage the new federal funds. Ohio is the nation’s most populous state without any passenger rail development program.”

What Ohio cities/MPOs/state can do for passenger rail this year:

  • ODOT/ORDC should include the FRA’s new Midwest Regional Rail Plan in their Access Ohio 2045 plan and State Rail Plan as well as the findings and recommendations from our Ohio Passenger Rail Assessment of Needs report.
  • As ODOT/ORDC begins planning its 2020-21 biennial budget in the coming months, include $12 million per year in state funds/credits from non-motor vehicle fuel tax sources for passenger rail planning, development and operations.
  • Although more federal funding will be available next year, cities (or their MPOs) like Oxford, Sandusky and Toledo can apply for federal funds today to complete the funding packages for building/improving their Amtrak/multi-modal station facilities.
  • Cities like Bryan, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Mentor and Ravenna-Kent should secure local funding sources now and apply for federal matching funds through their MPOs to create funding-ready plans for new or improved multi-modal transportation centers that include rail in their communities.

Congress provided an additional $834 million in transit infrastructure grants compared to the fiscal year 2017 level. This includes $400 million to help communities modernize their bus and rail systems, and $400 million for capital assistance to transit systems across the country to maintain a state of good repair. There is also more funding for “new starts” projects (such as for rail and bus rapid transit) but the maximum federal share is capped at 51 percent. Even so, there are no Ohio new-start transit projects that have funding-ready plans in place, although Greater Cleveland and Greater Cincinnati have projects that are close.

What Ohio cities/counties/MPOs/state can do for transit this year:

  • ODOT should update its excellent 2015 Ohio Transit Needs Study in its Access Ohio 2045 plan.
  • As ODOT begins planning its 2020-21 biennial budget in the coming months, include approximately $75 million per year in state funds/credits from non-motor vehicle fuel tax sources for public transportation planning, development and operations.
  • Transit agencies that have not already done so should establish a new vision for serving community needs, including becoming more engaged with the community and customers, a more diversified funding base, better ways of delivering services, and collaborating or combining seamless services with transit agencies in surrounding areas.
  • Cities, counties and major employers need to augment local funding to buy into their transit systems’ new vision so they can improve and expand the reach and speed of their transit systems to access jobs farther away from the established transit network.

“It’s time for Ohio to better position itself to tap into this new funding opportunity from the federal government,” Prendergast said. “It’s time to reconsider the model of transportation investment with one that is more responsive, multi-modal and better funded at the local, regional and state levels. Otherwise, this opportunity will leave Ohio at the station — again.”


Pittsburgh-Columbus-Chicago transportation plan starts

Midwest rail-Chicago

The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission will build upon Federal Railroad Administration plans nearing completion to develop fast ground transportation to link Pittsburgh, Columbus and Chicago as well as the smaller cities in between.

All Aboard Ohio welcomes the Pittsburgh-Columbus-Chicago high-speed transportation study announced today by the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission of passenger rail and Hyperloop. This important study will extend to Columbus and Pittsburgh the planning work already occurring between Gary, IN-Lima, OH of 110-mph high-performance passenger rail and add Hyperloop as an alternative technology for consideration. Because Hyperloop is an unproven technology that does not operate in revenue service anywhere, a feasibility study of its practicality is warranted. It remains to be seen whether this technology is better suited to moving passengers or shipping time-sensitive freight between regional distribution centers.

“Because of this and because Hyperloop, if built, is unlikely to serve any cities between the major cities of Pittsburgh, Columbus, Fort Wayne and Chicago, it is important to also advance the planning for and development of proven, modern, high-performance passenger rail,” said All Aboard Ohio Executive Director Ken Prendergast.

High performance passenger rail, when combined with station-area real estate development in major urban centers and small cities alike, is a growth industry for public-private partnerships throughout America and around the world. Brightline in Florida, Acela Express in the Northeast Corridor, Texas Central in the Lone Star State, and higher-speed (90-110 mph) passenger rail in the Midwest, California and Pacific Northwest are all models for Ohio.

“Brightline, in particular, is leading a disruptive renaissance in passenger rail,” Prendergast said. “It’s a private-sector initiative that creates and captures value and positive synergies between transportation and supportive land use to eliminate the need for ongoing operating subsidies. A similar initiative between Columbus and Chicago could capitalize on both cities’ economic growth as well as a reported fire sale of CSX-owned rail corridors and the state’s ownership of a significant portion of the rail corridor between Columbus and Pittsburgh.”

Columbus-Chicago is already part of a Midwest Regional Rail Plan, sponsored by the Federal Railroad Administration, that considers this travel corridor as viable for passenger rail. This plan is scheduled to be released this spring. Envisioned for Columbus-Chicago are limited-stop express trains taking less than four hours to reach downtown Chicago regardless of weather, and local-stop trains boosting local economies in smaller cities in between. Fares will cost less than flying or driving while on-board comfort and business travel productivity will be superior to all other forms of transportation. The planning funds contributed by the City of Marysville, City of Lima and Union County demonstrate the interest by these en-route communities in being served by this transportation corridor.


A public-private partnership may be Ohio’s best hope for passenger rail

Brightline trains began operating in South Florida on Jan. 12, 2018 -- the USA's first new privately-initiated passenger rail project and service in more than five decades. The project involves substantial real estate development around stations as well significant public-sector assistance too. But the project was not government-led, unlike passenger rail projects in the USA since the 1960s. (Modern Cities photo)

Brightline trains began operating in South Florida on Jan. 12, 2018 — the USA’s first new privately-initiated passenger rail project and service in more than five decades. The project involves substantial real estate development around stations as well significant public-sector assistance too. But the project was not government-led, unlike passenger rail projects in the USA since the 1960s. (Modern Cities photo)

All Aboard Ohio’s most recent hard-copy newsletter’s content was as much of a mixed bag of good and bad news as one could possibly imagine.

The lead story about the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) Midwest Regional Rail System (MWRRS) study showed that Ohio is a strong market for passenger rail. The second front-page story showed that Ohio’s leaders are still unwilling to invest in anything other than more roads. Their neglect of public transportation to better link people with jobs is what I’d expect from Banana Republics or the USA’s Deep South where poverty is rampant.

And then there’s was the newsletter’s centerspread. It listed urban, regional and intercity passenger rail projects in Ohio that are or were in the planning pipeline. All they need is lots of money – a wee technicality! The reason why All Aboard Ohio did this centerspread is because there is private investor interest in Ohio rail projects. And that’s a good thing considering the near-total lack of public-sector interest in passenger rail, especially at the state level.

For the first time in nearly 50 years, the private sector is investing in passenger rail. You’ve probably read about Japanese leadership of the Dallas-Houston high-speed rail project. Well someone had to finally step up and do the obvious – link the nation’s seventh- and ninth-largest consolidated metro areas, separated by only 240 miles, with high-speed rail. The Japanese, who saw such large cities so close together, came to the natural conclusion.

Thankfully, Americans were able to see the light in Florida – eventually. After Gov. Rick Scott gave back $2.4 billion in federal funds to build Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail, a private-sector effort got rolling. This effort, led by All Aboard Florida (later called Brightline) on behalf of Florida East Coast Industries (FECI), had an advantage – it owned most of the route necessary to link Miami-West Palm Beach (the nation’s 10th-largest consolidated metro area) with Orlando (the nation’s 17th largest).

But there’s some significant public-sector contributions to this project. All Aboard Florida received a tax-exempt $1.75 billion Private Activity Bond (PAB) allocation from the U.S. Department of Transportation. It has permission to build tracks on a narrow strip of state-owned land along 35 miles of Florida Route 528 from Cocoa to Orlando International Airport. The state is spending $215 million to build a railroad station at the Orlando airport to also serve Brightline, Sun Rail commuter trains and a maglev.

Funding also includes $130 million for the 3-million-square-foot MiamiCentral Station from EB-5 immigrant investor visas purchased by wealthy Chinese. Lastly, local governments are providing $70 million for track construction so Tri-Rail commuter trains can also serve MiamiCentral.

While Ohio isn’t growing like Texas and Florida, it’s a populous state surrounded by populous cities. And, as we all know, Ohio is horribly under-served by passenger rail.

In the 1980s, All Aboard Ohio founder David Marshall doubted the state government would ever take the lead in sponsoring a passenger rail project. He said governmental initiative ran counter to Republicans’ policies and Democrats were only willing to be polite toward passenger rail, limiting the state’s leadership to endless studies.

However, the late Mr. Marshall did say Ohio might support a project led by others, be it Amtrak or a private initiative. Unfortunately, Amtrak doesn’t usually take the initiative in passenger rail development and instead reacts to state efforts to purchase new rail services.

So what about a private-sector initiative? What’s interesting is that there are private investors nosing around Ohio. One is Brightline which said it wants to do another rail project, possibly outside of Florida, after it gets its trains into Orlando. Another is a Kentucky investor who rightfully sees the Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati/Louisville travel market as ripe for passenger rail. And the Chinese have been looking in Ohio and elsewhere for projects that combine rail/real estate development, be they urban, regional or intercity passenger rail.

Some believe that private sector leadership of a passenger rail project is the only way Ohio will get trains. To them, the FRA’s updated MWRRS plan may be good news. While trains services below 90 mph aren’t likely to garner much private interest, the MWRRS report will show that all proposed Ohio routes operating at 90-125 mph or faster, as part of a connected Midwest network, will generate enough operating revenues to at least cover the operating costs.

According to the FRA’s preliminary data, the Midwest’s most promising market is the Chicago-Detroit-Toledo-Cleveland-Pittsburgh corridor network. At 90-125 mph or faster, its frequent trains are projected to attract 7.2 million riders per year and achieve a revenue-to-cost ratio of 157 percent. The reason? There’s 10 million people in the consolidated metro area of Chicago (3rd largest), 5.3 million in Detroit (12th), 3.5 million in Cleveland (15th), 2.6 million in Pittsburgh (20th), 650,000 in Youngstown (74th) and in Toledo (75th).

That should draw private-sector interest. So might federal PAB or a low-interest federal loan from the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) program. Both can be used to fund rail infrastructure, trains, stations and, just as important, real estate development around stations to enhance ridership and revenues.

Let’s see how the private and public sectors react to the FRA’s MWRRS report when it is released in December. All Aboard Ohio is already doing its part to make sure they’re aware that Ohio’s looks pretty good in it.


Midwest rail plan is promising for Ohio


Preliminary data shows the Midwest’s most promising passenger rail route for future development is a 580-mile corridor network linking Chicago (the nation’s 3rd-largest consolidated metro area) with Detroit (12th-largest), Cleveland (15th-largest) and Pittsburgh (20th-largest) plus lots of smaller metros, tourist towns and college towns. As part of a larger network, frequent trains operating at 90-125 mph or faster could attract 7.2 million riders per year and produce revenues 157% greater than operating costs. But will the public/private sectors lead/support the development of this corridor in Ohio?

Although it is still a few months away from completion, the Midwest Regional Rail System (MWRRS) study by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and its consulting team is delivering some early returns. Those returns are in the form of ridership and operating cost-effectiveness projections that show Ohio has several potential intercity passenger rail routes deserving of strong consideration for public and private investment.


Indeed, one of the Ohio routes is projected to have the highest revenue-to-cost ratio of any Midwest route studied, according to preliminary data. All Aboard Ohio is already engaging stakeholders statewide to make them aware of the MWRRS findings. Please let us know of any stakeholders who should be contacted by e-mailing us at info@allaboardohio.org or calling us toll-free at 1-800-464-RAIL (7245).

Estimates of ridership, revenues, operating costs, capital costs and benefits are being developed for multiple Ohio routes, both as stand-alone corridors and as parts of an inter-connected system. The Ohio routes in this study include:

  • Cincinnati-Indianapolis-Chicago (via Greensburg, IN and/or Oxford, OH)
  • Cleveland-Columbus-Dayton-Cincinnati
  • Cleveland-Toledo-Chicago (via Fort Wayne, IN, South Bend, IN and/or Detroit)
  • Columbus-Chicago (via Lima, OH-Fort Wayne and/or Dayton-Indianapolis)
  • Detroit-Indianapolis (via Toledo-Fort Wayne)
  • Eastern Gateways (Cleveland-Buffalo, Cleveland-Pittsburgh, Columbus-Pittsburgh, plus two that bypass Ohio – Detroit-London-Buffalo and Detroit-London, ON-Toronto-Montreal)

This study represents an update of past, Midwest network planning efforts in the 2000s and in the 1990s. Those efforts ultimately resulted in upgrading the Wolverine (Detroit-Chicago) and Lincoln (St. Louis-Chicago) corridors to 110 mph standards as well as developing new services to the Quad Cities and to Rockford.

The next step in the current study will be to develop some estimates of conceptual capital costs and for user (riders) and non-user (society) benefits from three different service tier options for each route. The three service tiers are:

  • Core Express – over 125 mph, frequent service on dedicated tracks except in terminal areas, using electrically powered trains serving major metropolitan centers, and an on-time performance goal of 99 percent.
  • Regional – 90-125 mph, frequent service on dedicated and shared tracks, using electrically and diesel-powered trains connecting mid-sized urban areas with each other or with larger metropolitan areas, and an on-time performance goal of 95 percent.
  • Emerging/Feeder – up to 90 mph, several daily trains powered by diesel on shared tracks, connecting mid-sized and smaller urban areas with each other or with larger metropolitan areas, and an on-time performance goal of 85 percent.

Then, the planning team will prioritize each route for investment and at what service tier would be most beneficial for investment. So while the Wolverine and Lincoln corridors have already seen significant capital improvements upwards of $2 billion in total, the study may show they are deserving of more investment to further increase train speeds and frequencies.

Routes not yet developed also are showing strong ridership and cost-recovery potential and are likely to rank highly in this report. Twin Cities-Rochester-Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago appears to be the strongest, as-yet undeveloped route west of Chicago.

But east of Chicago, all of the Ohio routes are projected to earn revenues in excess of their operating costs when those Ohio routes are operated with a Regional service tier (90-125 mph) and in a network context.

In fact, the strongest proposed route evaluated in the entire MWRRS is a Chicago-Detroit-Toledo-Cleveland-Pittsburgh corridor network (includes branches and network connections to Grand Rapids, Lansing, Toronto and Fort Wayne). This corridor network is projected to attract 7.2 million annual riders and generate revenues that are 157 percent greater than its operating costs. This is sufficient to warrant a service tier of no less than Regional and perhaps as great at Core Express, according to the FRA’s preliminary findings.

But it is important for those of us in Ohio to remember that Eastern Gateway routes through Canada that bypass Ohio are also being considered by this report. While a Buffalo-Cleveland route with an Emerging/Feeder service tier is projected to attract 500,000 annual riders, the route through Canada is projected to be an even stronger network connection to/through Buffalo.

Although it’s not projected to be as strong as an Eastern Gateway via Pittsburgh, a route through Ontario has a political advantage. Ontario is aggressively developing passenger rail which includes planning for a 155-mph Windsor-London-Kitchener-Toronto route. Midwest routes with a Chicago hub can have their Eastern Gateway through Canada if Ohio continues to sit out the passenger rail renaissance.

At the next stakeholder workshop to be held Dec. 6 in Chicago, the FRA’s study team intends to release a draft, proposed Midwest regional high-performance rail network including:

  • Corridors with proposed levels of service
  • Potential stations
  • Capital costs, operating/maintenance costs
  • Prioritized phasing based on cost-benefit analysis

Planning documents, presentations given at the first three workshops and other materials are posted on the FRA’s MWRRS Web site at www.midwestrailplan.org. The FRA’s study team includes the Williams Sale Partnership Ltd. (WSP, based in the United Kingdom and which recently purchased U.S. engineering giant Parsons Brinckerhoff), Quetica which is a supply chain management/eCommerce consultant, and SMA Rail Consulting that provides rail consulting and internet technology services.