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State officials mum on support for Amtrak expansion even as federal funds are available to get answers

Posted at 4:53 PM, Jan 05, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-05 19:51:27-05

CLEVELAND — The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law brought Ohio and Kentucky Democrats and Republicans together with President Biden on Wednesday. They were celebrating the money from it that will be used to replace the aging Brent Spence Bridge connecting Cincinnati and Kentucky. It is money from Washington that Governor Mike DeWine gladly accepts, but in the same Infrastructure Act, there are funds he's not yet sure if he wants — money to expand Amtrak rail service in Ohio. The 3C+D plan would re-establish a rail link between Cleveland and Cincinnati with stops in Columbus and Dayton.

Last month DeWine told News 5 it wasn’t that he wasn’t open to it.

"If we can figure out how to financially make this work, we would like to do it, but it's got to work — it's got to work in two senses,” DeWine said. “One, the money, and two, the only way that the ridership will be anything near what we want is if it is competitive in time with getting in your car and driving.

"The last time we looked at this in Ohio, the train was going to average 32 mph or something and people are not going to use it. They're not going to do that if they can't get from Cleveland to Cincinnati at least in as good a time as it would take them to get in their car and drive.”

These are questions he asked the Ohio Rail Development Commission to answer, but that was eight months ago. Stu Nicholson of All Aboard Ohio says the state should at least be taking advantage of the initial federal planning funds that are out there.

"I understand his concern about ridership and cost but if you want to get the answers to a lot of those questions, then tell the Ohio Rail Development Commission to apply for one of these grants on behalf of the state. That's how you get the answers,” said Nicholson. "This is the kind of funding that goes towards the answers of what needs to be done to upgrade the corridor and make it ready to put fast, frequent trains on these corridors right from the get-go.”

On the question of usage, Nicholson said, “I have no doubt the ridership will be there. Our examination a dozen years ago with the first 3C+D plan was that we would see at least 700,000 to 800,000 passengers a year to start, and that's a conservative estimate.

"It’s not just speed, but it's also tied to frequent and reliable service. You have to run enough trains to make it a viable option. I think Amtrak is talking about three trains a day in the 3C+D corridor to start, which would enable same-day travel if you do that,” he said. “I think if you at least get this off to a good start the ridership will be there.”

The deadline to apply for the first round of funding from the Federal Railroad Administration is March 7. News 5 asked the governor that, given this, if the commission has given him any indication of when they might have a recommendation.

“No,” he said, “but we understand what the timelines are and we're going to make sure that that is done.”

In the meantime, Nicholson, who once sat on the commission, would at least like an update.

"Put out a press release that says 'Hey here's where we're at, here's what we've accomplished working with Amtrak so far.' What's going on? I mean, if they're at a standstill, let us know that they're at a standstill,” he said. “My question is, have you applied for funding from the Federal Railroad Administration? We'd like to know.”

“This is a transformational transportation project for the whole state, the likes of which we probably haven't seen since the advent of the interstate highway system. We'd like to hear an answer,” Nicholson said.