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Midwest Higher-Speed Rail Vision Gathers Momentum

Proponents of train corridor see opportunity to put Ohio capital on fast track to economic growth.

Columbus is the fastest-growing city in Ohio, with census figures revealing a population gain of more than 12,000 residents in 2013 alone. The jump puts Ohio's capital at No. 15 in fastest-growing cities nationwide, just behind San Francisco in its number of inhabitants overall.

Swift growth means finding speedy ways to get citizens from one place to another. Enter the Chicago-Fort Wayne-Columbus passenger rail corridor, a proposed higher-speed intercity system that would link 11 cities along 300 miles of track. Higher-speed rail is a passenger rail line that reaches, generally, speeds up to 125 mph – faster than conventional rail but not as fast as true high-speed rail, which is typically pegged at 155 mph or more. 

While the rail service hasn't been funded and is at minimum five years from groundbreaking, its Ohio-based backers have a clear vision of Columbus as the corridor's easternmost anchor, complete with the economic and job benefits attendant to that distinction. 

Making connections

A feasibility study released last year by the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association projected 26,800 full-time jobs and $700 million in household income for cities along the route. According to the study, a trip from Columbus to Chicago would take less than four hours, thanks to a direct route and rail cars travelling 110 mph to 130 mph. Indiana cities on the line include Fort Wayne, Warsaw, Plymouth, Valparaiso and Gary. The Ohio cities represented are Columbus, Marysville, Kenton and Lima.

Connecting Columbus to the largest center of commerce in the Midwest is an easy decision considering how much business activity takes place between the two cities, said Steve Campbell, director of regional growth initiatives for the city of Columbus.

The greater Columbus market, totaling over 1.8 million people, is the largest metropolitan area currently without higher-speed passenger rail.

"It would serve as another transportation alternative for shorter trips," Campbell said of the corridor that would travel through northern Indiana on its way to the Windy City. "Less than four hours by train (to Chicago) is very competitive with other travel options."

Columbus and eight other cities on the anticipated rail line signed a memorandum of agreement in August calling for cooperation in development of the ambitious project. The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), an association of local governments and regional organizations, is among a coalition of Ohio and Indiana municipalities, planning agencies and businesses now raising funds for an environmental impact study that would be the next phase in getting the rail line on track.

At a cost of $2 million to $3 million, the study would examine preliminary engineering, technical analysis and environmental effects along the route to determine the preferred course for locating the rail lines. The study, projected to begin next year, would take between 18 months and 24 months to complete. MORPC and its coalition partners are seeking local and federal funding for the report.

"The rail line is a very exciting project for these communities," said MORPC executive director William Murdock. "They're approaching the situation from a practical standpoint."

The 2013 feasibility report concluded that 2.1 million riders would use the system in 2020, with that number expanding to more than 3 million by 2040. Municipalities on and in close proximity to the rail corridor would see significant increases in business development and tourism, supporters maintain.

"There are numerous employers all along that route," Murdock said. "These cities would be helping to grow each other's markets."

Money matters

According to current proposals, the rail project would cost $1.3 billion, with most of that fee going toward construction and equipment. However, backers believe the corridor's economic return will make it a viable candidate for federal and state funding as well as lucrative public-private partnerships.

For now, the project is operating on a municipal level, noted Columbus official Campbell. While the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) has yet to sign off on the rail line, the state organization is willing to listen to environmental data once it's compiled in the next year or two.

"We told ODOT we wouldn't ask them for support at this time," said Campbell. "If it's worth going forward (with the rail line) after the study, we'll come back to them."

State transportation plans are scored on a 100-point scale, based on criteria that includes traffic safety and environmental and economic impacts, noted Steve Faulkner, ODOT press secretary.

"We would look at the application (for a rail line) like we would any other transportation project," Faulkner said. "That hasn't happened yet."

Corridor proponents understand the difficulty of accruing long-term funding. The Federal Railroad Administration has received $75 billion in requests for $10 billion in available grants for high-speed rail service. Monies could come from low-interest federal loans or individual governments trying to draw young professionals to town through convenient forms of transportation.

MORPC has looked at other communities with passenger rail, and sees no reason why Columbus shouldn't improve upon Cleveland and Cincinnati in the implementation of its own, faster service. Ohio Gov. John Kasich already rejected a plan by former Gov. Ted Strickland to connect Columbus to its metropolitan neighbors via train.

"This is an exciting opportunity for us, but it's still early in the process," said Murdock. "Linking Columbus to different cities across a vibrant corridor is worth investing in."  


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