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Planners See “Window of Opportunity” for Amtrak in Ohio

Brent Warren Brent Warren Planners See “Window of Opportunity” for Amtrak in OhioA portion of Amtrak's 2035 Vision map. Existing lines are shown in dark blue, proposed lines in light blue and improved lines in yellow.
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There’s been a flurry of news about Amtrak over the last few months.

Earlier this year Amtrak released its 2035 Vision plan, sharing a map of routes that would be implemented if the passenger rail service received full funding from the federal government. Included on the map was the 3-C Corridor, which would connect Columbus with Cincinnati, Cleveland and Dayton.

In late March, the Columbus City Council passed a resolution “to express support for Amtrak’s potential expansion of passenger rail services in Ohio.”

Soon after, the details of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal were unveiled, with its $80 billion in funding directed toward Amtrak service upgrades and expansion.

In Columbus, though, rail advocates know from experience that it’s too early to start planning any train-based vacations. As the largest U.S. city without any fixed rail service and the second largest without Amtrak service, there have been plenty of promising plans and initiatives through the years that have failed to result in any new trains rolling in and out of Downtown Columbus.

Will this time be different? We checked in with Thea Ewing, Director of Transportation and Infrastructure Development for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), to help us sort through the latest developments.

Ewing says she is “very optimistic about rail this time,” and is also excited about what she sees as growing momentum for transportation investment in general, a category that includes not just passenger rail but also other types of transit, electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles. “This is just an amazing age of transportation opportunity, the kind of thing that came along with Eisenhower and the interstate in the 1950s.”

When it comes to passenger rail in Ohio, “a window of opportunity is opening …we’ve talked before about how you have to stay prepared for when these moments in time present themselves, and this is one,” she said.

Amtrak points to its record ridership in 2019 as evidence that there is latent demand for more travel options in the U.S., especially for what it sees as the sweet spot for rail travel – cities that are between 100 and 500 miles apart. Ohio has several of those, plus its central location means that any investment here would also strengthen the national network. Amtrak estimates it could attract another 20 million riders a year with the new proposed investments.

The fact that the 3-C route made it into Amtrak’s 2035 plan – as did improved service on Ohio’s existing lines – is good news, Ewing said, and MORPC will be advocating for Congress to include passenger rail funding when it takes up Biden’s infrastructure bill, and also when the surface transportation reauthorization bill is taken up later this year.

“There are no guarantees, but they have been talking quite a bit about Ohio and improvements that need to happen,” she said.

Amtrak has said that it wants to build out these new lines without state funding, and even cover operating costs for the first few years, but state and local cooperation will be necessary – something that has tripped up Ohio before (in 2010, Governor John Kasich rejected $400 million in federal funding that would’ve established the 3-C line).

Ohio’s current governor, Mike DeWine, told the Dispatch recently that he is undecided on Amtrak expansion in Ohio, and Ewing said that her team has not heard much from the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) about the latest proposals, “but that’s not negative or positive, it could be either, especially when we just went through a tough transportation bill at the state level…we’ll see how things evolve over the next year or two.”

Ewing also hopes to convince decision makers at Amtrak, ODOT and the U.S. Department of Transportation that the 3-C line is not the only passenger rail corridor that should be pursued for Columbus.

“What we’d like them to recognize and bring into the fold is the connection to Chicago and Pittsburgh that we’ve been working on since 2014 – [given] the growth here and across the corridor, it should be under consideration for rail service; it is in their best interest as well as ours.”

MORPC has made that request official, sending a letter to Amtrak CEO William Flynn urging the inclusion of the line in the planning process.

A lot of the heavy lifting in terms of planning has already been done. A Tier One Environmental Impact Study was completed for the Chicago line and a more general feasibility study looked at the economic impact of both passenger rail and Hyperloop along the route (Ohio recently lost out to West Virginia for the chance to build a certification track for the Hyperloop).

“Once we know that significant resources are rallying behind a certain corridor, we can start moving final environmental and design levels of study into place,” said Ewing. “We’re ready to move forward once a funder is identified…everything a planner can possibly do, we’ve done it.”

Ewing is also hopeful that efforts to improve transit service within the Columbus region – like the LinkUs initiative – continue to move forward and not be “pitted against” the push for passenger rail between cities.

“We can’t have one of these without the other, it’s not a choice of local versus regional, [they both] help build a robust system,” she said. “Because of the growth we’re going to see, we need to have these options for all people…we’re not going to be able to compete if we don’t start delivering.”

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