AAO Still Trying to Move the Passenger Needle

A message showed up in my email inbox the other day from All Aboard Ohio, a passenger advocacy group, that has released a report titled, “Ohio Passenger Rail Assessment of Needs.”

The report was timed to coincide with the Ohio legislature getting to work in hammering out the state’s budget for the next two years.

ohioAAO is trying to push legislators to “begin planning, constructing or completing $23.6 million worth of passenger rail improvements” over the next two years.

Much of that work involves upgrading stations served by the state’s three Amtrak trains, the Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited and Cardinal.

Some of the funding would also be used to plan potential future intercity rail routes, including a proposed Chicago-Fort Wayne-Columbus route that has never seen Amtrak service.

As AAO sees it, more than $80 million in state funding could be available under state law to be used for passenger rail development without paying for the operating costs of any actual trains.

An AAO news release about the report was written in the typical optimistic tone of rail passenger advocates and sought to put the best possible face on intercity rail.

It focused on such facts as how Amtrak covers 94 percent of its costs through revenues and set a ridership record in fiscal year 2016.

It also reiterated a tactic that AAO has used in the past of trying to shame Ohio policy makers into taking action by noting how neighboring states and the Canadian province of Ontario are investing millions in the development of intercity routes and services while Ohio spends zilch.

The state capital of Columbus is the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere without passenger rail service.

Some folks in Phoenix might quibble with that although the Valley of the Sun does have a light rail system that is seeking to expand.

Rail passenger advocates tend to be an optimistic lot. They have to be. If they acknowledged the long and difficult road ahead they might throw up their hands in frustration. AAO is no exception.

“We look forward to continuing our dialogue with Ohio’s policymakers in achieving realistic, near-term improvements to our state’s transportation system,” said AAO Executive Director Ken Prendergast. “We urge Ohioans to contact their state lawmakers in Columbus today and inform them with a short, polite message that they want better passenger rail service in Ohio.”

AAO has around 500 members and even if all of them contacted their legislators it is doubtful that it would have much effect on what the legislature is likely to do in terms of supporting intercity passenger rail.

Ohio has never spent a dime on funding intercity rail service, unlike neighboring Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

It received a federal grant to help develop the Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati corridor, but Gov. John Kasich killed the project shortly after winning election in 2010 and the federal government took back the grant and reallocated it elsewhere.

Ohio’s apathy, indifference or hostility – choose which word you think fits best – toward intercity rail development is not likely to change this year.

Kasich is still governor and is unlikely to change his views toward intercity rail service. Nor is the current legislature likely to be any more open to rail than is the governor. They are not going to be shamed or moved to action.

There may be some small victories, such as state funding of existing station improvements, but little to nothing else.

So AAO works to develop support for a rail a little at a time. Like I said, it’s going to be a long struggle.

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