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Published: Wednesday, 10/6/2010

Kasich shouldn't block high-speed rail tracks

WHEN the high-speed or medium-speed train pulls out of the station, Ohio won't be on it if Republican John Kasich wins the gubernatorial election. He is adamant that expansion of passenger rail service in the state will go nowhere if he's governor.

Mr. Kasich isn't the only GOP hopeful who vows to derail one of President Obama's signature initiatives to modernize the nation's transportation system. The high-speed rail project envisions development of the country's first bullet train, whisking passengers between major cities and states in much the way high-speed rail has kept other industrialized powers moving.

But Mr. Kasich, like a handful of other Republicans running for governor in other states, is in lockstep with his party - which has habitually resisted all policy objectives sought by the White House. He derides the plan to connect Ohio's largest cities with passenger trains that, he says, won't go fast enough and won't do anything for the state but waste taxpayer dollars.

No doubt Mr. Kasich aims to stand out as the fiscally reasonable candidate in the election. But it makes little fiscal sense for him to dismiss an alternative means of transportation that could pay big dividends in Ohio.

The state competed aggressively to receive one of 13 stimulus-funded rail projects in the country. The $400 million in federal money was awarded to provide the first regularly scheduled passenger rail service connecting Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati in more than 30 years.

At least 6 million Ohioans live within 15 miles of the proposed rail route. Aside from creating tens of thousands of permanent jobs and economic development along the heavily traveled corridor, as well as hundreds of temporary construction jobs over 10 years, the high-speed passenger trains could transform travel as we know it.

A recent report by the Ohio Public Interest Research Group examined how high-speed passenger rail systems would affect the Midwest. The nonprofit advocacy group quantified the benefits of proceeding on an incremental path to a high-speed rail network in Ohio.

In addition to spurring crucial job creation, the network would reduce highway congestion and fuel consumption. According to the group's report, the "3C" rail system would lessen car traffic on Ohio's highways by nearly 320,000 vehicle miles per year and save 15,000 gallons of fuel per day.

The report, called "Connecting the Midwest," notes that 55 percent of Ohioans, and 59 percent of the state's work force, would live within 15 miles of a station. Subsequent phases of rail investment in Ohio would tie Toledo to the rest of the state and potentially to other cities, such as Pittsburgh.

Depending on how smart Ohio is with the stimulus rail funds, the project could become an essential geographical link in a national rail network. The rail infrastructure would be built on an improved freight passageway. As financing permits, trains would increase from initial speeds of 79 mph to 110 mph.

High-speed rail is a significant long-term investment. But so was the federal highway system that took five decades to complete. Yet just as President Dwight Eisenhower believed his vision for advancing interstate travel with connecting highways could fundamentally improve transportation in America, so can a high-speed rail system.

It can connect the country in a new, progressive, 21st century way that promotes economic development while diminishing pollution and dependence on foreign oil.

Or not. With governorships up for grabs, and Republicans likely to do well in November, the promising rail projects may never happen. Mr. Kasich parrots his partisan colleagues in California and Wisconsin by insisting the projects should be shut down because state money shouldn't be used to subsidize their operation, especially relatively low-speed rail systems.

Accepting $1 billion in stimulus money for Ohio roads and bridges, whose construction, rebuilding, and yearly maintenance require substantial state subsidies, is different somehow. It's costly and shortsighted, but apparently fiscally reasonable to the anti-rail Mr. Kasich.

Even in the midst of a devastating recession, with jobs painfully scarce, the would-be governor is ready to turn down a $400 million construction project, fully financed by the federal government, to link the state's biggest cities.

All aboard with that, Ohioans?

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com.



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