Amtrak leaders, Ohio mayors call for 3-C+D passenger rail service

Dayton hasn’t had passenger rail service in more than 40 years, but Amtrak leaders and some Ohio mayors hope that will change with a new intercity route connecting the Gem City to Ohio’s largest cities.

Amtrak’s president, CEO and a few Ohio mayors, including Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, on Tuesday participated in a roundtable about the proposed 3-C+D corridor.

The corridor gets its name from the major Ohio cities it would connect: Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati and Dayton. It would also include a stop in Springfield in Clark County, according to proposal maps.

With state and federal support and local partnerships, Amtrak potentially could launch new initial passenger service within several years, said Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s president.

The 3-C+D route would offer three daily roundtrips, carrying an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 passengers annually, he said.

The annual economic impact of the new service could be nearly $130 million, he said.

“Ohio deserves energy-efficient, world-class intercity passenger rail service, and it is possible,” he said. “It is within reach.”

Mayor Whaley said the proposed passenger rail line would greatly improve the connectivity of mid-sized cities across the Midwest.

“Making sure that folks can move easily between the cities will really expand regional opportunities for all the people who live in those three regions particularly,” she said.

Amtrak served more than 500 U.S. communities and transported 32 million passengers in 2019, before the coronavirus crisis upended travel and everyday life. Amtrak saw its ridership decline by 95% early in the pandemic.

But ridership is recovering, and the transit company proposes connecting as many as 160 additional communities with 30 or more new routes.

Amtrak is seeking federal funding and state and local partnerships to assist with its expansion plans.

The new proposed 3-C+D corridor route would stretch about 250 miles and connect Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton, as well as Springfield, Delaware, Crestline and Sharonville, Gardner said.

Traveling by train from one end of the corridor to the other initially would take about five and a half hours, but Amtrak would seek to reduce trip times to less than five hours over time with system improvements, he said.

Under the proposal, Amtrak would run passenger trains on existing freight lines that connect the cities owned and operated by other companies.

The freight lines likely would need some improvements and upgrades, which could lead to faster and improved freight service as well, said William Murdock, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.

“Implementing passenger rail gives us that opportunity to improve the freight system at the same time,” he said. “If we want to get to the speed to serve both, this is the way we can improve the system.”

Columbus is the second largest metro area in the nation without Amtrak service, and there is no air service between Ohio’s three largest cities.

“We think the 3-C+D corridor is one of the most, strong potential ridership markets that Amtrak could look at,” Murdock said. “There are tight personal and business connections between the cities.”

Dayton lost its Amtrak rail service on Oct. 1, 1979, when the U.S. Department of Transportation redrew the Amtrak map and told Congress it needed to act to continue certain routes, a company spokesperson said.

One-quarter of Dayton residents do not have access to a car, which significantly limits their opportunities, especially when it comes to high-quality jobs, said Mayor Whaley.

“Amtrak is so key because of the access it offers to folks who may not have access to a car,” she said.

Ohio has a great existing rail network and new passenger service would help address traffic congestion and climate change and combat “structural inequality” in transportation access across the nation, said Bill Flynn, Amtrak’s CEO.

“Our country needs a transportation system that offers frequent, reliable, sustainable and equitable alternatives to driving and flying,” he said.

Amtrak’s broad vision for new service and passenger routes likely will take until 2035 to achieve if it receives the needed funding support, but the company would like to start new service in Ohio earlier than that, possibly within a matter of years, Gardner said.

The timetable heavily depends on negotiations with the host railroads, because Amtrak must be allowed to use their infrastructure, he said.

Amtrak and its partners need federal support for a long-term program that provides funding for service and network investments, Gardner said.

“We are advocating that the federal government provide upfront capital funding and some initial operating support to help lessen any financial obligations that are required of our states as part of starting new service like this,” he said.

More than a decade ago, the state of Ohio was awarded $400 million in federal stimulus funding for a proposed 3-C passenger rail corridor that would have stops and stations in downtown Dayton, Riverside and Springfield.

But Ohio Gov. John Kasich killed the passenger rail project when he was elected in 2010, claiming it would require millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies.

Some officials say this proposal is different because it comes from Amtrak instead of being pushed by the state, and passenger service is in growing demand because of changing transportation preferences of workers, businesses and younger generations.

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