New train of thought

In 1970, Congress and President Richard Nixon sought to halt the deterioration of the U.S. rail network by creating a nationalized system that would, in essence, take over the passenger service, forcing big railroad companies into bankruptcy.

Since then, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, or Amtrak, has suffered in the face of a car-centric culture, mismanagement, inflexible labor interests, urban sprawl, government regulation and inadequate federal funding.

Amtrak's money problem - many argue its most significant - was addressed Oct. 16 when President Bush signed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. It marks the first time Amtrak has been funded on a multi-year basis, getting approval for $13 billion over five years. It's also the first time individual states can get federal money to study, improve and build passenger rail systems, through a $1.9 billion matching system.

"The capital cost for rail was much more daunting for states before than it is now with a federal partner," Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. "Without a partnership, if you're doing a state budget, it's a lot different."

This has states like Ohio eager to jump into an Amtrak network that in 2007 posted its sixth consecutive year of increased ridership and revenue. Last year, the corporation carried more than 28.7 million passengers to 500 destinations in 46 states on a 21,000-mile system.

"There have been all kinds of rail plans that have floated around in the past," said Nicholson, Ohio's rail commission spokesman. "The problem has been a lack of a federal funding program. [The Rail Safety Improvement Act] changes that dynamic. It's not unlike how the interstate highway system got started."

Not everyone is convinced that passenger rail will materialize in Ohio just because some money's been approved in Washington.

"Amtrak has always been low on the priority list," said Bruce Richardson, president of the United Rail Passenger Alliance, a conservative policy group. "Just because someone has authorized the money for rail doesn't mean that it will be appropriated."

Richardson also cautioned against a "wishful thinking plan" that in the end fails and wrongly furthers the notion that rail doesn't work.

Fourteen states currently work with Amtrak on a contract basis to extend its national service network or fund improvements. Nicholson's group is studying two plans that would tap Uncle Sam and add Ohio to that group.

The more likely, short-term plan calls for restoring the 3C corridor, using Amtrak's operations and existing freight lines with minimal upgrades to move people from Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati.

Reviving this state-supported corridor would be key to the Ohio Hub, a proposed high-speed rail system that would link Columbus to existing lines that currently reach Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago and beyond.

During the past year, political will for these rail plans has been building at the state level.

A letter written by Gov. Ted Strickland to Amtrak was responsible for an ongoing federal study of the 3C corridor, and a bill introduced to the Ohio Senate in March seeks to form a committee to analyze public transit in the Buckeye State.

"Ohio is much further along in this than many other states," Magliari said. "They have the [Ohio Rail Development Commission]. You don't find that kind of entity in every department of transportation. [Rail] is closer now than it's ever been."

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