From Sept. 22-25, 2013, the rail committee of the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO) will hold its national meeting in Columbus, OH. All Aboard Ohio is grateful the Standing Committee On Rail Transportation will meet here and share state-by-state progress reports. But one thing is a certain outcome of this meeting – none of its attendees will take the train to get here.
The reason? Columbus is the nation’s largest metro area without any regularly scheduled passenger rail service, be it Amtrak or light rail. But Ohio’s status as a passenger rail pariah goes even deeper and is getting worse while the rest of the nation is moving ahead with more and faster trains.
Some ask why is this a problem when metro Columbus has 1.9 million residents and is growing? We ask what would Columbus be like if it had passenger rail? Perhaps Columbus would be even larger or growing faster than it is? There’s a good chance of that, as it would likely retain more of its young people who come to Columbus from around the world for its educational opportunities.
Many young professionals say they like Columbus EXCEPT for one thing – its lack of public transportation, especially rail. They say if the city had passenger rail service and more public transportation, it would go a long way toward making Columbus “cool” for the young and talented. That’s according to the Columbus Chamber of Commerce’s “2011 State of the Young Professional” survey.
Ironically, also in 2011, Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he wanted to make Ohio “cool” for young people who were leaving the state for places that were and are developing walkable cities, public transit and passenger rail services.
Gov. Kasich said that shortly after his administration refused $400 million in federal funds for a new 79 mph passenger rail service on existing tracks between Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati. He was one of three Tea Party governors who refused passenger rail development funding. The others were Florida’s Rick Scott and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. But 33 governors, including Scott and Walker, from both parties accepted federal passenger rail funding.
Since then, Ohio has gone off the deep end. All Aboard Ohio has received reports that state employees were prohibited from promoting, planning or even reporting on passenger rail improvements in Ohio and other states. Dozens of passenger rail-related documents were eliminated from the Ohio Rail Development Commission’s website (but not before All Aboard Ohio was encouraged to save them). Amtrak routes were erased from the state’s official transportation maps. And Ohio discontinued its $15,000-per-year state membership in the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission even though Ohio has more rail passenger industry suppliers than any other Midwest state.
Ohio’s pariah status got even more lonesome after Florida and Wisconsin began playing key roles in passenger rail improvements in their states.
Under Gov. Scott, the Florida Department of Transportation contributed $150 million to leverage another $300 million in federal funds to acquire a railroad corridor for the $1 billion, 61-mile Sun Rail passenger rail service in Central Florida. FDOT wasn’t done. It reached an agreement with Florida East Coast Industries to use state-owned right of way for development of 110-mph passenger rail service linking Orlando and Miami. And FDOT is building the $2 billion Miami Intermodal Center next to that city’s international airport. This will unite Amtrak intercity rail, Tri-Rail regional rail, Metrorail urban rail, plus intercity and local buses, and commercial aviation.
Meanwhile, state DOTs under Republican Govs. Walker in Wisconsin and Mark Dayton in Minnesota are jointly developing plans for expanded Amtrak service between Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago. The plans are being carried out per a process that will allow the states to apply for federal construction funds. New, European-style trains are sitting idle in Milwaukee and could be available for such an expansion of service.
Pariah Ohio is doing nothing to improve its passenger rail services or support planning for new train routes. That’s true even on the busy Amtrak route across northern Ohio used by 630,000 passengers last year and growing at 3 percent this year. Expanded stations are desperately needed to add more and faster trains.
What can Ohio officials possibly contribute to the passenger rail sessions at AASHTO’s National Meeting in September? Will their ODOT superiors even let them attend those sessions? Perhaps after Ohio officials get done boasting about the $3 billion in deficit spending on highways this year, they can talk about the mere $2 million ODOT will invest in its freight railroad programs. To put that paltry amount for rail into perspective, Ohio spends 15 times more, or $30 million per year, mowing the grass along its Interstate highways. It’s no wonder AASHTO’s rail meeting attendees cannot take the train to Columbus.