All aboard, Ohio


As passenger rail ridership reaches record levels in the Midwest and across the nation, states need to coordinate their efforts and maintain a voice in Washington to promote regional rail service and federal investment. But Ohio is refusing to get on board.

The Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission helps states such as Ohio plan for improvements, not just for the next five years but the next 20 or 30. Partly because of the commission’s efforts, other Midwestern states have gotten hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid, enabling them to give travelers options, promote economic development, and create manufacturing jobs.

Yet the administration of Gov. John Kasich wants to withdraw from the commission. Membership dues are not included in the new state transportation budget. Nor has the state paid its dues for this year.

This move is not about money. It would cost Ohio just $15,000 a year to maintain its commission membership, within a $7-billion transportation budget that is focused almost entirely on asphalt and concrete.

Rather, it’s about an outdated ideology that ignores the vital economic and social needs served by transit and rail. They will become even more compelling in coming decades. Trains reduce the demand for foreign oil, ease traffic congestion, and improve air quality.

But Ohio has no active passenger rail program, even for planning. The administration’s lack of interest virtually ensures that the federal government will not make rail investments here.

“Roads, bridges, freight, infrastructure — those are our priorities,” administration spokesman Rob Nichols told The Blade’s editorial page. “And it’s not as though a rail project is going to circumvent Ohio because we’re not a member.”

Interstate projects warrant interstate planning. Ohio should want to participate in planning projects that directly affect it. The administration’s dismissive attitude toward rail and transit is shortsighted and self-defeating.

Despite Ohio’s recalcitrance, Midwest rail ridership has increased by 35 percent over the past five years. It has doubled since 2004.

In one of his first acts in office, Governor Kasich rejected $400 million in federal stimulus money for high-speed passenger rail service for Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. The taxpayer money went to other states.

Columbus may be the nation’s largest state capitol without passenger rail service, said Laura Kliewer, director of the Chicago-based rail commission. Our state’s train service is limited to three long-distance routes that stop at Ohio stations, including Toledo, mostly during the middle of the night.

Michigan and Illinois, by contrast, are benefiting from large federal investments, along with record ridership, for passenger rail service. They are providing 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 a 110-mph operation in part of the Chicago-Detroit corridor, and plans track upgrades between Ypsilanti and Kalamazoo. Such speeds eventually will cut running times between Detroit and Chicago to four hours from five and a half, making them competitive with air service.

Ohio is in the middle of major inter-state corridors. The state needs a voice in how rail is planned, regionally and nationally, over the next several decades.

A legislative committee will likely send the two-year transportation budget to the Ohio House and Senate this week. Lawmakers should maintain Ohio’s membership in the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission. At $15,000 a year, it’s a bargain-basement investment in Ohio’s future.