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Published: Friday, 8/14/2009

Amtrak delays study on Ohio passenger train

ASSOCIATED PRESS

COLUMBUS, Ohio An Amtrak study on restoring passenger train service among Ohio's major cities will be delayed two weeks until mid-September, giving the state a tighter deadline to apply for money from President Barack Obama's stimulus package.

Amtrak is juggling new requests and congressional mandates to evaluate service in other states, pushing back its study of trains connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati, agency spokesman Marc Magliari said.

The study's conclusions on ridership, revenue projects and station locations originally expected at the end of August figure to play a key part in Ohio's application. State officials working on the project downplayed the delay.

Other studies demanding Amtrak's time include establishing passenger service in Montana between Billings and Missoula and potentially reopening a line that once ran from St. Paul, Minn., through Montana and onto Seattle, Magliari said.

States are competing to get a slice of $8 billion in stimulus money that Obama set aside for rail projects in the U.S., which he sees as a down payment for a future high-speed network.

Most stimulus applications need to be filed with the Federal Rail Administration by Aug. 24.

Amtrak will deliver a draft of its Ohio study on or about Sept. 15, giving the state about two weeks to put together a bid during a second round of applications due Oct. 2.

"There's a lot to do and I'm very confident we're going to get it done," said Matt Dietrich, executive director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission, the state agency in charge of submitting the application.

Gov. Ted Strickland's administration is seeking as much as $400 million in stimulus money to buy railcars, build stations and make necessary upgrades on existing freight tracks so that passenger trains traveling up to 79 mph can start running in 2011.

About 6 million people live along the 250-mile route from Cleveland to Cincinnati, making it one of the most densely populated corridors without rail service in the Midwest.

Strickland and seven other Midwest governors have pledged to coordinate stimulus bids and lobbying efforts, saying a high-speed network would help reduce road congestion and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Under the plan, the Cleveland-Cincinnati route would be part of a Chicago-based Midwest rail corridor, with trains eventually running up to 110 mph and branches connecting other parts of Ohio.

Despite the delay in Amtrak's study, work continues on other data needed for Ohio's application, Dietrich said.

Norfolk Southern Corp. and CSX Corp., two companies that own most of the rail lines on the route, are reviewing a preliminary analysis of traffic flow so that passenger and freight operations don't conflict.

The state is also developing management plans, Dietrich said. Strickland has estimated that Ohio would need about $10 million a year to operate passenger train service. Some of the money would come from fees that restaurants, hotels and gas stations pay to advertise on blue highway exit signs.

Private train service from Cleveland to Cincinnati ended in 1971.

Ohio has studied the idea of restoring passenger service throughout the past 30 years, a factor that should help the state as it puts together its application, said Ken Prendergast, executive director of All Aboard Ohio, a nonprofit group promoting passenger rail.

"We know a lot about this route already," he said. "Ohio is more than capable of pre-writing the application and filling in the blanks once they get new data."



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