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Ohio has money for intercity trains — and few who agree on what to do with it



IMAGINE GETTING ON A TRAIN in Cleveland and arriving in Columbus for a meeting — relaxed, rested, and prepped for your presentation. Or your football game, or your night on the town. No more staring through the windshield at long, dreary stretches of I-71 in Richland and Morrow County.

That's already a reality for travelers from Boston to Washington, D.C. There, an Amtrak passenger train travels the so-called Northeast Corridor, delivering riders to New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore at the same average speed as driving — if you weren't sitting in traffic — and occasionally reaching speeds up to 150 mph. The service debuted in December 2000 and has proved popular in the densely populated region, where driving and parking are perpetual challenges.

But would it work here? The last passenger trains connecting Ohio cities were phased out in 1971, and Ohio is now the most densely populated state whose cities aren't connected by rail. (Cleveland, Toledo, and Cincinnati are pass-throughs on interstate Amtrak routes.) With intercity bus service shrinking and airfares for short trips expensive, rail could provide the only transportation option between Ohio cities for those who don't or can't drive, and offer a low-cost, less stressful alternative to driving for commuters, businesspeople, tourists, and college students.

So there was rejoicing among Ohio rail supporters in January when it was announced that the state had been awarded $400 million of the $8 billion in federal stimulus funds earmarked for intercity rail across the country. Last October, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) and the Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC), with strong support from Governor Ted Strickland, sought the funding to build the "3C" Corridor, linking Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Dayton, with trains projected to be running by 2012.

Such a project had long been discussed among rail advocates, and in July 2007, ODOT and ORDC issued a study, begun about two years earlier, for what it was calling the "Ohio Hub," intended to link not only Ohio cities, but to connect Ohio to rail systems in Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, and Ontario. At the time, the concept had strong bipartisan support. But it remained a pipedream until the stimulus money jolted it from the realm of theory to reality.

But that award was also met with opposition from the Ohio Contractors Association, the Ohio Trucking Association, and the Ohio Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association — all of them highway-dependent groups — as well as conservative politicians concerned about potential extra costs. Among their criticisms: Building a rail line will require expensive state subsidies and will never be self-supporting, and train speeds will be so slow and they will run so infrequently that they won't attract ridership. Besides, they add: Nobody in Ohio wants to ride trains anyway.

These arguments frustrate Ken Prendergast, executive director of the nonprofit group All Aboard Ohio, the leading advocate for expansion of rail travel in Ohio. In "3C Corridor Mythbusters," posted on its website, the group responds to accusations like "Ohio's 3C corridor is too slow to succeed," "Ohio should sidetrack this train for high-speed rail," and "If 3C made so much sense, it wouldn't need a subsidy."

Prendergast sighs as he rebuts these charges, one by one. You can tell he's been over this before.

"The 39 mph speed [in the preliminary study] was a worst-case scenario," he says. "The normal cruising speed is 79 mph. Your average travel time with stops from Cleveland to Cincinnati would be about five to five and a half hours." (By car, the same trip takes about four hours.)

He points out that no region has gone from having no intercity rail at all — Ohio's current situation — to high-speed rail instantly. In fact, this phase of the project, which would operate trains on existing freight rail lines, is dubbed "Quick Start." People have to get acclimated to train travel, he says. "You don't build a train with 12 round trips a day in a state built around a car culture. You have to develop the culture."

While the federal government is providing the $400 million to build the 3C Corridor, Ohio will have to find money to subsidize its long-term operations — an amount estimated to run about $17 million annually. That would come from the Ohio Department of Transportation, whose annual budget now approaches $4 billion, almost all of it dedicated to maintaining the state's roadways.

"ODOT spends $12 million a year just cutting grass along the freeways," says Prendergast, suggesting rail maintenance would represent no more than a sliver of the annual budget. According to ODOT's own projections, he says, the operating cost of Ohio's highway system will grow by hundreds of millions of dollars in the next decade — and that only half of that is likely to be covered by user fees like gas taxes. The rest will be subsidized by general revenue — i.e., Ohio taxpayers.

State Representative Kenny Yuko of Richmond Heights is a believer in intercity rail — and casino gambling. "I call it the 3C: Cleveland casino, Columbus casino, Cincinnati casino," he says. "It promotes tourism within the state. It will encourage travelers not only for business, but for leisure. They can see the Indians one day and the Reds the next; they can come visit the art museum or hear the Cleveland Orchestra. Older people who might not drive can come to the Cleveland Clinic.

"We need to realize that this is an economic development tool," he says. "It's going to create locations that have been unused so far that now have potential for building. There are so many positives and so little negative. The biggest negative factor we have in Ohio are people's attitudes — when people walk around and say this is going to fail."

But critics claim there's more than just homespun Ohio pessimism at play.

State Senator Tom Patton of Strongsville isn't opposed to rail: He helped prevent Governor Bob Taft from closing the Ohio Rail Development Corporation in 2003, and he would like to see commuter light rail expanded in urban areas. But the chairman of the Senate's Highways and Transportation Committee says it's all about the money. He doesn't believe there's a demand for intercity passenger rail that would justify the cost. He doesn't trust that the rail system can be built for $400 million, and he doesn't trust the projected operating subsidy of $17 million. He thinks it's going to cost Ohio taxpayers a lot more.

He cites a 2007 National Highway Transportation Board study that showed it would cost $660 million to build passenger rail in Ohio, based on 2002 construction and material costs. "So where is the state of Ohio, which is $8 billion in the hole as of next year, going to find another $260 million to build it?" he asks.

"I have no idea what he's talking about," counters Prendergast. "If anyone did a study back then, it was on the back of an envelope, and there was no engineering study done. I collect studies. I've got a drawer full of these things. For him to refer to such a study has as much credibility as me asking my six-year-old kid. That's the whole hypocrisy of these guys, which tells me their motivation comes from other places."

Prendergast says that ODOT/ORDC's 2007 Ohio Hub study did contain a cost projection of around a billion dollars — for a much more extensive system than is currently being proposed.

But Patton also believes that, unlike the Eastern seaboard, Ohio doesn't have the necessary supporting factors.

"You have to have a major hub that is automobile-unfriendly and parking-impossible," he says. "People that live in Virginia and Maryland that work in Washington all take the train. Same thing for people that live in Connecticut — they'll take trains into New York. But even those trains are subsidized. Geography plays a big part in whether rail is successful. It will never be in Ohio. [Rail advocates] are still looking for a target market they haven't been able to uncover."

But he also points to something that is often the focus of resistance: "We've got hundreds of billions invested in our interstate highway system. We've grown up with an interstate system, we're highly reliant on an interstate system, and we like our cars."

Ohio Senate President Bill Harris also opposes the project, citing cost, slow speeds, and the limited initial schedule. But he also likes cars: He founded a car dealership that's still run by his sons.

Republican gubernatorial challenger John Kasich is no fan of rail either. His camp didn't respond to interview requests for this story, but a news clip posted on his website about Ohio rail studies is headlined "Train Already Wasting Taxpayer Money." And he said earlier this year that the $400 million Ohio received for rail would be better spent on Ohio's roads and bridges.

But it can't be: The funds are specifically attached to rail. If Kasich becomes governor in November and decides to kill the 3C project, Ohio's money will go to other states. With California, Florida, and the Pacific Northwest, among others, ramping up to build their stimulus-funded routes, someone else will be waiting in line to take the money Ohio leaves on the table.

Whether or not that's a good thing remains to be seen.

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