Ohio Senate backs passenger-train plan

3/19/2009
BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - The Ohio Senate yesterday kept Gov. Ted Strickland's proposed restoration of passenger rail on track, but rejected his proposals for speed cameras in highway construction zones, a tougher seat-belt law, and new tolling authority for roads far from the Ohio Turnpike.

The Republican-controlled chamber voted 22-9 to return the dramatically rewritten, $6.2 billion transportation budget to the Democrat-controlled House. The two-year budget is likely headed for a joint Senate-House conference committee to iron out a compromise that Mr. Strickland would sign.

The budget, sponsored by Rep. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo), still includes authorization for the Strickland administration to pursue federal stimulus money for an estimated $250 million restoration of passenger rail service connecting Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland.

But it requires the administration to return to the General Assembly for approval before money could be spent on actual construction.

"We were asked to support a system that no one could tell us what it would cost to build, what it would cost to operate, and who might ride it," said Sen. Stephen Buehrer (R., Delta). "I think that was an impossible task for this body."

Most Senate Democrats voted against the bill, protesting that the Senate majority had gutted it of innovative and green technology ideas proposed by Mr. Strickland.

"The rail language, which we had so much discussion about, is enabling legislation that will allow Ohio to compete for those stimulus dollars, $8 billion," said Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo). "We've heard overwhelming support and excitement from around the state for us to be able to compete for those dollars."

The bill still includes a provision added in the House that would advance all studies related to a proposed Toledo-to-Columbus corridor, presumably putting that branch next in line should the state pursue further expansion of passenger rail beyond the so-called "3C" line.

The Senate struck from the bill a speed-enforcement camera program that the Strickland administration had proposed for highway construction zones.

It also removed a provision that would have allowed police to pull over motorists solely for failing to wear seat belts. This change would have allowed the state to draw down $26 million in one-time federal funds.

"Legislators must ensure that any policy decisions we make are good ideas regardless of whether the state is in dire economic straits or is flush with resources," said Sen. Tom Patton (R., Strongsville).

The Senate also rejected language that would have granted the Department of Transportation authority to impose tolls on newly constructed roads and bridges. Through ODOT, local regional authorities promoting a single transportation project would also have been given similar authority under the House-passed version.

"Elimination of the seat-belt provision and prohibiting cameras in construction zones while people are working will make Ohioans less safe," said House Speaker Armond Budish (D., Beachwood). "And I fear that the changes made to the 3C passenger rail project will make us less able to compete for federal funds."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.