All Aboard in Cincinnati?

More than fifty years since Americans were first given the freedom to zip from state to state on the Interstate Highway System, an equally ambitious project is in the works. From California and Florida to New York and Illinois, key states throughout the US are getting on board a nationwide plan to build a network of high speed railway lines that could help put some of the nation's most critical challenges on a better track.

In February 2009, Congress designated $8 billion for states to launch intercity rail projects, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This massive infrastructure effort, projected to take 25 years, is poised to revitalize the economy, create jobs, provide an alternative form of transport and preempt the crisis lurking in our dwindling oil reserves, all in one go.

Yet, despite all talk of "Yes, we can," some politicians, including Ohio governor-elect John Kasich, who has proclaimed that "the train is dead," are taking an avid stance against this project. And unless something changes fast, Ohio, and Cincinnati, could be left behind.

"It would be as if earlier Ohioans had thought airplanes would never catch on and had never set aside land for airports," says John Schneider, chair of the Alliance for Regional Transit and member of the Cincinnati Planning Commission and Leadership Cincinnati.

"Ohio is the most densely populated state in the Mainland U.S. without rail connecting its major cities," Schneider continues. "It's as densely populated as France, which has one of the best high-speed rail systems in the world."

Ohio's stake in this project is a $400 million federal grant that is earmarked for the state to develop a rail network. Once completed, this railway is projected to carry 478,000 passengers annually, according to an independent study done by AECOM, a global provider of professional technical and management support services with more than 25 years of experience providing train ridership estimates by using population, availability of competing transportation, alternative drive times and fares.

"That would give Ohio's service the 12th highest ridership level in the nation," says Scott Varner, Deputy Director of the Ohio Department of Transportation. "These passengers would generate more than $12 million each year in ticket sales alone."

Dubbed the 3C "Quick Start" Passenger Rail Plan (3C rail), the network would link Ohio's major cities - Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and Cleveland - and provide connections to regional hubs in Chicago and on the East Coast. Additionally, according to the Ohio Public Interest Research Group, investing in the 3C rail project would create 16,700 permanent jobs in Ohio alone. 

Yet, despite these potential benefits, not everyone agrees with pouring precious funds into new infrastructure. Kasich, for one, maintains that the supposed high-speed network is not so high speed after all. According to Kasich, the Cleveland-Cincinnati link would transport passengers at a slow hum of 39 mph; well below the average speed of driving the same distance. Yet, as with all political campaigns, it can be tricky to separate rhetoric from reality.

"The truth about speed needs to be told. 39 miles per hour is simply wrong," Varner says. According to a year-long study done by Woodside Consulting, a premier national railroad modeling firm, trains on the 3C rail network would travel at 79 mph for approximately 70% of the trip from Cincinnati to Cleveland.

"Keep in mind that these are not cruising speeds or top speeds," Schneider adds. "They are simply the average speed over the entire lapsed time from when the train begins rolling in Cincinnati and finally stops in Cleveland, including all the stops and layovers in between."

After all stops and safety-related speed reductions are factored in, the average speed of the trip clocks in at 50 mph, and closer to 60 mph between Cleveland and Columbus. Given this data, an updated schedule shows that trains would be able to make the trip from Cincinnati to Cleveland (258 miles) in just over 5 hours.

As a numbers game, alongside speeds, another bone of contention is the state budget. Those in Kasich's camp remain skeptical that Ohio can sustain this hefty scheme for the long haul, given the state of the economy.

"The other issue that's wrongly used to cloud this conversation is our state budget," Varner says. "Our state is facing one of its tightest budgets in decades and many state agencies will face tough decisions and possible cuts. But no state tax dollars will be needed for the current phase of study and engineering on the 3C project. It is estimated that the operation of this service could be funded with no state tax dollars through at least 2020."

When Kasich asked U.S. Dept. of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood if Ohio could use the funds for other infrastructure work, LaHood reminded Kasich that the funds are intended for trains and added that any money not used for its intended purpose would be up for grabs.

"When Kasich said, 'The train is dead,' the leading Charlotte paper said, 'Fine, North Carolina would like to have the money for the high-speed rail system we'd like to build,'" Schneider recalls.

"Meanwhile, Ohio will spend $2 billion this year and $2 billion next year on its roads - this at a time when the growth in Vehicle Miles Traveled in the United States has flattened out. Americans actually drove fewer miles in 2009 than in 2005."

This casual disregard makes it seem as though the populace is not interested in having more diverse transportation options. But polls paint a different picture. According to a statewide poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in March 2009, 73% of Ohioans ages 18-34 would like to see some form of rail transport implemented in Ohio. The same poll found that 62% of Ohioans ages 35-54 and 61% of Ohioans 55 years or older share this sentiment.

These numbers bode well for rail advocates in Ohio, where more than 220,000 college students, historically a boon to Amtrak, live within 10 miles of the proposed 3C stations, and 40 colleges and universities are found within its reach as well. Students are not the only ones who stand to benefit from the proposed rail system.  The 3C rail plan has received more than 200 statewide letters of support from various businesses, cities, universities and colleges, and its grass roots efforts include a Facebook group with close to 4,000 members.

"In Cincinnati, the demand for transportation choice is clearly on the rise," Varner says. "Just look at the great support behind the Cincinnati Streetcar service. This is because residents and businesses alike see the benefits of having more options." According to Varner, linking the proposed railways to an extensive network of other public transport options is a crucial piece of the puzzle for keeping young professional talent in town.

"Connectivity is critical in creating our state's future transportation network," adds Colin Groth, Government Relations Director at Metro. "Inter-modal connections for the movement of both passengers [bus-streetcar] and freight [rail-barge] are critical to a successful system. Should expanded passenger rail service become a reality in Ohio, linkages between that system and local transit networks should be a top priority."

Groth notes that transportation is already being integrated as a priority regionally. "At the local level, Agenda 360, the regional action plan, has called for the creation of a regional transit strategy and an expansion of transit services to help Cincinnati better compete for talent in a global economy," he said.

But ultimately, while connectivity and economic development are themes often echoed in current political discourse, advocates see the 3C rail plan as a crux issue that transcends party lines.

"Transportation should never be a partisan issue," Varner says. "The doubts about passenger rail have nothing to do with what Ohioans want but with the misinformation that people have been given." He warns, "If we do not take advantage of this opportunity, Ohio will become an island, disconnected from the rest of the country's modernized transportation infrastructure."

Photography by Scott Beseler and Tiffani Fisher.
Train with Cincinnati Skyline
Provided project map
The train yards behind Union Terminal
Commercial freight
The lines
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