Why is ODOT Director Wray an “expert witness” for Congress on passenger rail?

UPDATE, DEC. 6, 9:00 a.m.: Director Wray was removed from the final witness list. No reason given.

For Immediate Release
Dec. 5, 2011

Ken Prendergast
Executive Director
All Aboard Ohio
(216) 288-4883

Tomorrow, U.S. House Subcommittee on Railroads Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) is scheduled to hold a hearing titled “The Federal Railroad Administration’s High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program: Mistakes and Lessons Learned.” Tomorrow’s hearing includes several witnesses who will try to defend why Shuster and others ended a popular program in which 39 states, the District of Columbia, and Amtrak applied for more than $75 billion worth of passenger rail projects. Those requests were made to a $12 billion pot of money.

Strangely, among those testifying is Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jerry Wray, a former president of Flexible Pavements, the asphalt industry lobbying association.

“This was a popular, bipartisan program that was sidetracked one year before the Presidential election,” said Ken Prendergast, executive director of the nonprofit rail and transit advocacy organization All Aboard Ohio.

“Only three of 25 states returned federal funding, and two of those — Florida and Wisconsin — have accepted other federal passenger rail funding and increased their state-funded investments in passenger rail to promote jobs and affordable transportation options for their citizens. That makes Ohio the backward outcast, yet its transportation chief gets called as an expert witness. I find that to be just a tad ironic,” Prendergast added.

Here is what Director Wray will likely NOT tell the committee tomorrow:

•   In its first year, Ohio’s Cleveland – Columbus – Dayton – Cincinnati (3C) Corridor 79 mph passenger rail service would have attracted the 12th greatest ridership of any Amtrak service and risen from there as other new routes have similarly grown — often spectacularly.

•   Start-to-stop average 3C train speeds would have been 50 mph, the third-fastest of 11 new train services sponsored by states in the U.S. since 1980 and evolved to high-speed rail with more job-producing investment, as every other high-speed rail service on Earth has done.

•   Value-capture activities at the Riverside station, one of several station-area real estate developments stimulated by the 3C trains, would have more than offset the entire annual operating subsidy of 3C.

•   Wray apparently thinks he needs every penny to save Ohio’s highway system. All Ohio transportation tax dollars (actually 99 percent) already go to roads, but gas tax revenues are diminishing because Baby Boomers (75 million people) started turning 65 years old in 2011, GenerationY (80 million people) aren’t as interested in driving everywhere and because fuel costs remain high — all underscoring the need for travel options that Wray apparently fears would take Ohioans’ hard-earned tax dollars away from his highway industry colleagues.

But perhaps the biggest mistake in tomorrow’s hearing is that too many in Congress continue to employ a double-standard that passenger rail should be the only self-sustaining transportation mode. Amtrak is enjoying record ridership and now covers 85 percent of its costs from revenues, whereas motorists pay only 50 percent of the costs of using the highway system, according to Federal Highway Administration statistics from 2007. That was before $62 billion in federal Highway Trust Fund bailouts and stimulus subsidies were spent to offset taxes from flat or declining traffic levels but rapidly rising highway system costs.

Why is Ohio a backward outcast? Since 2009, the following Federal Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act (PRIIA) and American Reinvestment & Recovery Act (ARRA) High-Speed & Intercity Passenger Rail Funding was accepted by these Midwest states….

  • Illinois – $1,734,866,660
  • Iowa – $248,709,080
  • Indiana – $71,364,980
  • Michigan – $400,732,595
  • Minnesota – $45,600,000
  • Missouri – $50,900,300
  • Ohio – $0
  • Wisconsin – $34,055,437

Total: $2,586,229,052

“Based on these numbers, why was Director Wray the only state department of transportation chief called to testify?” Prendergast asked.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker recently backtracked from his rejection of $810 million in no-match federal funds for developing the Chicago-Twin Cities high-speed corridor via Milwaukee and Madison because he claimed it would have cost his state $7.5 million in operating funds. Instead, he requested $150 million in new federal funds that would have required $37.5 million in matching state dollars to improve Amtrak’s Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha Corridor service. That grant request was denied.

Meanwhile, Florida has committed nearly $300 million in state funds for two new passenger rail services: a Central Florida regional rail service called Sun Rail and for starting direct Jacksonville-Miami Amtrak service on the 80+ mph Florida East Coast RR. That would also make Gov. Rick Scott a less-than-ideal witness for Rep. Shuster at this time of his trying to justify the end to federal capital investments for passenger rail.

“Finally, what Director Wray won’t tell us tomorrow is that he has looked into his crystall ball and saw a future of fewer people willing and able to drive, higher fuel costs and reduced gas tax revenues for Ohio,” Prendergast said. “Instead of seeing an opportunity to begin diversifying Ohio’s transportation system to respond to this new paradigm, he saw a threat to Ohio’s highway monopoly, dug in his heels and sought to defend a status quo that cannot be saved. That’s why 3C died — not because of how a federal passenger rail program was designed.”


3 Comments to "Why is ODOT Director Wray an “expert witness” for Congress on passenger rail?"

  1. Heyo Van Iten's Gravatar Heyo Van Iten
    December 6, 2011 - 2:24 PM | Permalink

    Failure to invest in passenger rail is a real insult to America’s growing population of elderly people. Instead of enjoying safe, fast, reliable and relaxing train rides, our elderly are subjected to the stress and hazards of highway driving, in dense traffic and in bad and even hazradous weather..

  2. December 6, 2011 - 3:20 PM | Permalink

    Don’t forget ODOT – with Wray at the helm – pulling all the state funding for the highest ranked transportation project, the Cincinnati Streetcar, due to “fiscal reasons.”

  3. Ed's Gravatar Ed
    December 7, 2011 - 1:25 AM | Permalink

    Well said Van Iten.

Leave a Reply