Feds lend Ohio hand to get back on the train again

One of the least heralded provisions of the new, 5-year federal transportation program could prove to be its most impactful. Station-area development is now an eligible use for the largely untapped $35 billion Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) program. This could encourage copycats of All Aboard Florida's synergistic downtown station-area real estate and 110-mph Brightline passenger rail project between Orlando and Miami. Shown here is Miami Central Station, now under construction.

One of the least heralded provisions of the new, 5-year federal transportation program could prove to be its most impactful. Train station-area development is now an eligible use for the largely untapped $35 billion Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) program. This could encourage copycats of All Aboard Florida’s synergistic downtown station-area real estate developments and 110-mph Brightline passenger rail project between Orlando and Miami. Shown here is Miami Central Station, now under construction. (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

The Republican-controlled U.S. Congress has extended its hand to states and regions to get on board in giving its constituents more and better transportation choices. It did so by offering new financing tools for improved passenger rail and transit services in the new 5-year federal transportation law passed this week. Now Ohio’s state government, metropolitan areas within Ohio, and businesses should respond to their federal leaders by tapping these new federal funding mechanisms to expand passenger rail services and mass transit to create and access more jobs, promote travel and tourism, and improve Ohio’s quality of life.

There are many new federal financing tools for passenger rail in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. A thorough section-by-section description and analysis of the new law by the National Association of Railroad Passengers is available HERE. A broader but less detailed analysis of the overall public transportation and rail provisions of the FAST Act by Transportation For America is HERE.

“We hope that Ohio’s leaders in the State House as well as community leaders in the 24 regional/metropolitan planning organizations across Ohio will capitalize on this opportunity offered by their federal leaders in both parties,” said Ken Prendergast, Executive Director of All Aboard Ohio, a nonprofit citizens association that advocates for more and better trains and transit.

The new transportation bill gives Ohio an opportunity to modestly expand existing passenger rail services without the state having to take the lead on funding. Section 11104 “Restoration and Enhancement Grants” authorizes $20 million per year in operating funds to expand existing or resurrect previous passenger rail services. Since 2000, due to federal budget cuts, no two states lost more passenger rail service than Florida (1,419 daily train-miles cut) and Ohio  (1,008 daily train-miles cut).

While $20 million per year is a small amount for the entire country, at least two of All Aboard Ohio’s proposed expansions could be among the most affordable in the nation:

  1. Expanding Amtrak’s Cardinal service through Cincinnati from thrice-weekly to daily; and
  2. Linking the existing 110 mph Keystone and Wolverine corridors via Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Akron-area, Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit.

However, Amtrak is not legally allowed to act on its own in expanding services that require more funding support. It can do so only at the request of others such as a member of Congress, a state department of transportation, or a consortium of regional/local governments. All Aboard Ohio will be very busy in 2016 working with leaders to advocate for more trains in Ohio.

FAST also provides more state-of-good-repair funds for transit. Federal funding for Ohio’s public transit agencies will grow from $175 million in 2015 under current funding formulas to $195 million per year by 2020. That’s not counting grants that Ohio transit agencies, cities and metropolitan areas can compete for to achieve new transit services and intermodal transportation centers that will improve connectivity between trains, transit, bike and pedestrian modes.

Ohio’s business community recognizes the importance of quality public transit in creating and accessing more jobs and attracting Millennials to or retaining Millennials in Ohio’s cities. Consider Agenda 360 in Cincinnati which is making a strong case for more transit investment. In Columbus, a redesign of the Central Ohio Transit Authority’s network is underway called NextGen, promoted by civic and business leaders. And in Northeast Ohio, the Fund For Our Economic Future and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland are highlighting the missed economic growth opportunities from the absence of a more expansive, multi-county transit system in their Job Accessibility in Northeast Ohio initiative.

Last but not least, FAST includes a section called “Subtitle F – Railroad Infrastructure Financing Improvement Act” to streamline federal funding reviews and open up rail infrastructure financing for train station-area real estate developments. It remains to be seen how impactful this feature will be, but it has the potential to be a game-changer if fully utilized. This provision was included by federal lawmakers from Illinois so that major improvements to Chicago Union Station could be eligible for Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) loans. But it opens up the door for much, much more.

The RRIF program, managed by the Federal Railroad Administration, has $35 billion in lending authority but sits largely unused. By expanding eligibility to include Transit Oriented Development (TOD) or station development and simultaneously shortening application review times, it could incentivize more private infrastructure investment. In fact, this change could encourage copycats of All Aboard Florida’s Brightline project to jointly develop rail and real estate. The project will link Orlando and Miami with new 110 mph passenger rail service in synergy with the company’s major real estate developments totaling nearly $2 billion in initial private investment at several downtown stations.

“Imagine a similar network of fast trains in the Midwest linking downtown stations surrounded by mixed-use towers in Chicago, Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Toledo and Youngstown,” Prendergast said. “Fast trains and real estate can benefit each other in a fiscal feedback loop incentivized by the new Subtitle F. It could have the potential to be a real game-changer for the Midwest which is already one of the largest economies in the world.”

Contact All Aboard Ohio Executive Director Ken Prendergast at 216-288-4883 or kenprendergast@allaboardohio.org.

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3 Comments to "Feds lend Ohio hand to get back on the train again"

  1. David Aldinger's Gravatar David Aldinger
    December 4, 2015 - 10:38 PM | Permalink

    I’m going to try to make this my last pitch for this but with the possibility of of a Chicago-Fort Wayne-Columbus corridor and also of an expanded Keystone corridor to Pittsburgh I really think linking the two between Lima and Pittsburgh really makes good sense. I don’t know about Crestline but I do know that Canton did quite well for Amtrak. Also Mansfield and Wooster should be looked at as potential stops.

  2. Schmolik's Gravatar Schmolik
    December 5, 2015 - 1:31 PM | Permalink

    I believe your proposal in September said the Pennsylvanian would go through Dearborn and not direcly through Detroit. I am not from Michigan. I assume Dearborn is pretty close to Detroit and that would qualify as “Detroit” service but the train is not proposed to actually go to the city from what I read.

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