Maybe the Amtrak Expansion Train Was Never Coming to Ohio

A headline on Page 1 of the Monday issue of The Plain Dealer wondered whether the proposed Amtrak expansion in Ohio is a train that has already left the station.

If you read the story carefully you’ll find the answer.

That train never reached the station. There was talk about how it might be coming, but in reality it was no more than a concept on paper and in words.

For more than a year Amtrak has floated the idea that Ohio would see a major expansion of service under its proposed Amtrak Connects US plan.

There would be new service between Cleveland and Cincinnati via Columbus and Dayton, additional service between Chicago and Cincinnati, and additional service to Cleveland from New York and Detroit.

The service expansion seemed to get a boost last fall when Congress approved the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act with its much ballyhooed $66 million in funding for rail passenger service.

Since passage of the infrastructure bill, the Federal Railroad Administration has been formulating guidelines that will govern how it allocates funding to establish new intercity rail passenger service.

Those guidelines are expected to be released around May 14 but a few hard truths are already clear about what is and is not likely to happen with that program.

The infrastructure bill lacks enough funding to pay for the entirety of the new services proposed in the Amtrak Connects US plan.

What money is available will be awarded through a competitive process. Neither the Ohio legislature nor Gov. Mike DeWine have shown enthusiasm for seeking grant money for new Amtrak service.

DeWine has not opposed it, but he’s been noncommittal, which may as well be opposition because it signals his heart isn’t in it.

The Plain Dealer story noted a resolution introduced in the legislature supporting Amtrak expansion in the state has generated little attention and has yet to receive a hearing.

An Ohio Rail Development Commission spokeswoman told the PD the agency has not even begun conversations about the possibility of expanded passenger rail service.

And, the newspaper account noted, just one Republican state legislator has signed on as a co-sponsor of the Amtrak expansion resolution.

That’s not a promising sign in a legislative body where the GOP has a supermajority.

Expanding Amtrak in Ohio has received support from a few local government agencies in the state, including planning and economic development bodies.

In theory one of those agencies could seek an FRA grant but such a proposal would need to be in partnership with the Ohio Department of Transportation to be taken seriously.

Those planning and economic development entities lack a say about whether Ohio will continue to fund new rail passenger service if it does get started.

The FRA grants are most likely to go to states already well along in the planning process for new or expanded Amtrak service, including having committed state funding to those efforts. Ohio has done little to none of that.

The Amtrak Connects US plan proposes using federal money to get new corridor services started but once they are up and running the states will be required to assume over time – up to five years – the full responsibility of paying the operating costs of the trains.

That alone is enough to make any Amtrak expansion in Ohio a dicey proposition.

It is not just Ohio. Amtrak has proposed ambitious expansions in several states that have little or no experience in funding intercity rail passenger service.

Although All Aboard Ohio and the Rail Passengers Association are seeking to prod state transportation departments to seek one of those FRA grants, the leaders of those advocacy organizations know that’s unlikely to happen in some places.

 “I think Ohio runs the risk of essentially getting left behind in the dust of other states,” said Stu Nicholson, executive director of All Aboard Ohio, in an interview with the Plain Dealer.

 “We’re seeing other states starting to take advantage of the fact that there is this huge amount of money on the table. We’re still waiting for Ohio to raise its hand,” he said.

The lone GOP Ohio legislator to support expanding Amtrak service in Ohio is Rep. Haraz Ghanbari, who represents a district near Toledo.

Ghanbari used Amtrak regularly when he lived outside of Washington.

Speaking like a rail passenger advocate, he said transportation is an economic development proposition that would drive population and business growth in Ohio.

“We need to think outside the box a little bit,” Ghambari said. “I can’t answer for why more of my colleagues haven’t been more on board with this. I can’t answer for the governor.”

More than likely Ghambari knows more about why other legislators are ambivalent about if not opposed to funding intercity rail service than he’s willing to acknowledge.

In the meantime, Gov. DeWine failed to mention transportation in last week’s state of the state speech. That’s not a promising sign, either.

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