Getting Ohio on track


Michigan and Illinois are benefiting from large federal investments, along with record ridership, in passenger rail service. Ohio should take note.

Much of that service is geared toward providing Midwest passengers with high-speed alternatives to planes and cars. Illinois is making a $1.1-billion upgrade to the Amtrak route between Chicago and St. Louis that will raise top train speeds from 79 to 110 miles per hour.

In Michigan, Amtrak established 110-mph operations in part of the Chicago-Detroit corridor, and plans further track upgrades between Ypsilanti and Kalamazoo. Such speeds eventually will cut running times between Detroit and Chicago to 4 hours from 5½.

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Ohio taxpayers, in effect, helped pay for Amtrak improvements in Michigan, Illinois, and even California. In one of his first acts in office, Gov. John Kasich rejected $400 million in stimulus money for passenger rail projects.

In Ohio, the money was slated for the so-called 3C project, including new high-speed passenger service among Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. That money left the station for other states.

Upgrades elsewhere in the Midwest are giving people travel options, promoting economic development around stations, and creating manufacturing jobs. Amtrak spent more than $10 million last year buying equipment and supplies from Ohio businesses, even though train service here is limited to three long-distance routes that stop at Ohio stations, mostly after midnight.

Nationwide, Amtrak had record ridership last year, carrying more than 31 million passengers — a 3.5 percent increase from 2010. Trains are especially attractive for destinations of fewer than 500 miles, with far lower fares than air travel and competitive commute times.

High gasoline prices have also increased ridership. Many passengers enjoy being able to work while traveling. Trains also reduce the demand for foreign oil, reduce congestion, and improve air quality by reducing traffic.

But Ohio has no active passenger rail program, even for planning. In a visit to Toledo this week, Amtrak Chairman Thomas Carper made clear the railroad isn’t interested in expanding in states that don’t support rail projects.

Even so, Ohio’s cities, counties, and metropolitan planning organizations, such as the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments, can and should start advocating for passenger rail. As a first step, they could lobby the federal government for more frequent and faster service, and improved stations, along the Chicago-to-New York route that includes Toledo — Ohio’s busiest Amtrak stop.

Ken Prendergast, executive director of the advocacy group All Aboard Ohio, told The Blade editorial board that municipalities and metropolitan planning groups could form so-called joint powers authorities that are eligible to receive federal grants directly for rail projects.

Leadership won’t come from state government. But local governments, planners and citizens can work together to get Ohio on track for the passenger rail service the state needs and deserves.