Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ohio's rail project likely will be boondoggle-in-progress

Today, I was reading what at first appeared to be a relatively nondescript Associated Press article that featured comments by Ohio Transportation Director Jolene Molitoris. On Wednesday, Molitoris met with Ohio Senate President Bill Harris (R-Ashland) to discuss the state’s plan to restore passenger train service through the Cleveland-Columbus-Dayton-Cincinnati corridor.

This project, according to Molitoris, will be successfully completed within the currently projected $400 million budget, which is being financed entirely through federal stimulus funds (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).

The AP reports her saying the rail system will go through a thorough review along the same lines as any highway project would. Molitoris’ other assertion is the state’s early estimates suggest roughly 478,000 passengers will use the train during its first year of operation, adding she expects that number to grow as stations are added.

My first problem is of the “apples-and-oranges” nature. Considering the state’s highways are in place for use mainly by individual commuters in their privately-owned vehicles and passenger trains are entirely of a mass-transit nature, to compare the two functions makes no sense. The logistics for construction, maintenance, safety issues, and access by the public are completely different between highways and commuter rails.

Also, there is a component of shared responsibility for all those concerns with the system of highways between the state, local jurisdictions, and the federal government depending on that highway’s designation. As I understand this initiative thus far, Ohio is to assume ownership for the ongoing costs for the rails.

Even if, for the sake of discussion, we accept the argument being presented by Governor Ted Strickland’s administration that construction and all other components associated with the rail’s implementation can be accomplished, there’s one more nagging question to be asked. Then what?

By Molitoris’ own description, more passengers will use the trains each year so long as new stations are added along its path. How much will those additional train stations cost? Will they be covered by that initial $400 million stimulus earmark? What is the projected cost-to-revenue ratio for each potential new stop that is erected?

And then begins the real fun part of that last issue. Who is going to decide which communities will and will not get their direct link to the railway as time goes on? Who will set the criteria for those decisions? How will those criteria be set? Will communities get a train stop even if they may not want one?

Returning to the matter of continuing costs, if these trains fail to at least break even how much money will Ohio have to lose before Washington steps in to assume control?

The queries will only get more probing and ardent especially if the rail system begins bleeding money the same way Amtrak did after the U.S. Department of Transportation began subsidizing it roughly 40 years ago. Especially: what guarantees can we realistically expect that the trains over the years will be a cost-effective endeavor?

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