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Here’s the Latest on Amtrak’s Plans for New Ohio Service

Brent Warren Brent Warren Here’s the Latest on Amtrak’s Plans for New Ohio ServiceA rendering of the proposed train station, by LMN Architects.
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Although there have been plenty of promising plans and initiatives through the years, Columbus remains the largest U.S. city without any fixed rail service and the second largest without Amtrak service.

So, while the recent news about plans for a new train station on High Street has been greeted by some with excitement, there is still plenty of pessimism to be found among those that hope to see new passenger train service in Ohio.

We checked in with Thea Ewing, of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), to help us sort through the latest developments. Last spring, Ewing told us that there could be a real window of opportunity opening up for passenger rail in Ohio, and since then, President Biden has signed into law an infrastructure bill that sets aside $66 billion in funding for rail projects over the next five years.

“It’s a significant amount of money for passenger rail; some of it is committed to the Northeast corridor…but the other parts of it are dedicated to establishing new service around the country,” said Ewing, and Columbus has been identified by Amtrak “as the market that they’re not currently serving with the best business case.”

“This really changes things from ten years ago,” she added, when Governor John Kasich rejected $400 million in federal funding that would’ve established what was called at the time the 3-C line (it’s now referred to as the 3C+D line, adding Dayton to the mix, along with Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati).

At that time, the push for new service in Ohio was largely coming from Governor Ted Strickland’s administration, and when he lost his reelection bid to Kasich, the funding was quickly shifted to other projects in other states.

“This time, it’s Amtrak saying ‘we want to be there,’ so definitely the script has flipped from that standpoint,” said Ewing. “The Federal Rail Administration is currently designing their program for [the allocated] money, but Amtrak has pretty much stated, if Ohio’s interested, they’re our applicant for this funding.”

Determining whether Ohio is actually interested is the hard part. Governor Mike DeWine’s administration has not commented officially on Amtrak’s expansion plans (most of the excitement has been coming from mayors and other officials representing cities along the route), yet some arrangement will need to be in place to ensure that maintenance and operation costs continue to be covered after the five-year Amtrak funding commitment runs out.

“Someone would have to make a commitment; it doesn’t necessarily have to be the state of Ohio,” Ewing said. “We can’t do this without the state, but there are a lot of ways we can do this with the state…this could be a separate authority…[there have] been successful models in other areas of the country – on the gulf coast, out in California – where the state doesn’t fully operate those, but they’re at the table.”

There is also time for those arrangements to be made. Ewing said that she expects the Federal Rail Administration to open up the application window for new projects some time in late spring or early summer, and from there, Ohio would have 60 to 90 days to respond.

“What I foresee is that this summer, maybe as late as early fall, that’s when things will come together,” she said. “Then we wouldn’t hear an answer for as much as six months to a year from that point, so it’s not an immediate process…there’s still time for plenty of conversation [with state authorities]…this door is not even close to closing.”

Don Brown, Executive Director of the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority, echoed those thoughts at the authority’s recent development committee meeting, in which the new train station study was unveiled.

“I think the next step is for the community to decide who will lead the charge for the community on this project; then I think the objective would be to – after April, after the primary elections – to line up state support,” he said, adding that the estimated cost of maintenance for the route, to allow trains to run at a top speed of 75 miles per hour, is between $18 to $20 million a year.

In addition to state support, an agreement will have to be reached with the freight rail companies that currently operate along the route. Brown said Amtrak officials told him that, “once those things are in place, it is possible that service could launched within three to five years.”

Read More: Amtrak Station, New Plaza Could be Added to Convention Center

A flier produced by Amtrak showing proposed service improvements in Ohio.
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