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Whether Ohio takes federal cash to expand Amtrak service may depend on who’s governor next year

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 5/19/2022 Jeremy Pelzer, cleveland.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio’s governor likely won’t decide whether to expand Amtrak passenger rail service in the state until next year, following a study of the proposal.

That means Amtrak’s expansion in Ohio may depend on who wins this year’s governor’s race. Democratic nominee Nan Whaley says she would accept Amtrak’s proposal to build a line connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati, create another new line between Cleveland and Detroit, and expand existing service along existing routes. Incumbent Republican Gov. Mike DeWine says he wants to see the study results before weighing in on it.

Last year, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided $66 billion for Amtrak to launch its most significant expansion in the quasi-public corporation’s 51-year history. Starting sometime this fall, new Federal Railroad Administration guidelines call on states and other interested public entities to formally express interest in receiving Amtrak money; the FRA intends to begin accepting proposals this fall.

Amtrak would cover the cost of constructing the lines and paying operating costs for the first five years; after that, the state would have to pay for any costs not covered by revenue from the lines.

Last month, DeWine asked the Ohio Rail Development Commission to work with Amtrak to study the feasibility and cost of expanding passenger rail service in Ohio. That study, paid for by Amtrak, will likely take between eight months and a year to complete, according to Stu Nicholson, executive director of All Aboard Ohio, a passenger rail advocacy group.

ORDC spokeswoman Wende Jourdan said it’s not yet clear how long the study will take, given it’s in “the very, very early stages.”

DeWine told reporters earlier this week that he has an “open mind” about potentially expanding Amtrak in Ohio, noting he’s used the rail system to take his family on several camping trips out West. However, he added, he needs to know the details of the plan before deciding whether to support it.

“Once we get to the facts, then I think we can make a decision as a state going forward, and that people can be informed — not just the governor, not just the legislature, but the people can be informed as to what the facts are,” DeWine said. “We don’t know all the facts yet.”

However, DeWine noted that the last time a proposed Cleveland-Columbus-Dayton-Cincinnati route (nicknamed the “3C+D” line) was discussed in 2010, an Amtrak report found that trains on the “high-speed” rail line would only travel an average of 39 miles per hour. When Republican John Kasich became governor in 2011, he quickly rejected $400 million in federal money to construct the line.

If the study finds Amtrak trains along the 3C+D line would travel at those speeds, DeWine said, “that’s just not going to work.”

Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton, has “long been a supporter” of the proposed Amtrak line between Cleveland and Cincinnati, campaign spokeswoman Courtney Rice said in a statement.

“When Nan is governor, she’ll use the full power of her administration to make these proposed routes a reality,” Rice said.

Nicholson, in an interview, said Amtrak calculated that trains between Cleveland and Cincinnati would average 39 mph only if no improvements were made along with the route and freight-train schedules remained the same.

Amtrak estimates that if the 3C+D line is completed, it will take 5 ½ hours to travel the 250-mile-long route from Cleveland to Cincinnati. Nicholson said while that’s almost two hours longer than it would take to drive between the two cities, that assumes drivers don’t stop for food or gas, don’t get stuck in traffic, and don’t have to take a bathroom break.

“It’s just nice to be able to travel between the cities and not have to have your hands on a steering wheel,” Nicholson said.

While it’s up to the governor to decide whether to accept the Amtrak money, state lawmakers — who would have to approve any money needed to pay for the lines after five years — appear split on the issue.

Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican, said while it makes sense to operate trains in cities such as New York, where driving and parking can be a hassle, there’s a question about whether enough Ohioans would prefer to travel via a train instead of by car to make the project worthwhile.

“I’m not enthusiastic about it,” Huffman said. “It’s kind of fun to talk about, but until someone can figure out why it’s better than taking a car, I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Eleven Ohio House Democrats and one House Republican (state Rep. Haraz Ghanbari of Perrysburg) have introduced a resolution urging support for Amtrak expansion in Ohio. However, that measure has so far gone nowhere in the Republican-dominated House.

When asked about Amtrak expansion on Wednesday, Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp, a Lima Republican, replied: “At this point, I don’t have any thoughts.”

Cleveland.com politics reporter Laura Hancock contributed to this story.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit cleveland.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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