Passenger rail supporters consider consortium to revive Ohio proposal

Gov.-elect John Kasich has declared a passenger rail project dead, but rail supporters hope to revive the plan by eliminating the need for state subsidies and creating a new entity that could accept $400 million in federal stimulus funding.

Rail supporters would create a joint powers authority, a combination of local governments and transit authorities that could grant a franchise to a private consortium that would run the so-called 3C passenger service from Cincinnati to Cleveland via Columbus and Dayton. The consortium would be able to access funds from such revenue streams as station leases, food service, advertising and sponsorships to help pay for the service.

Ken Prendergast of All Aboard Ohio said supporters are initially seeking only to complete a $14.9 million federally funded engineering study, without any obligation to create a rail service. “To kill this thing before the engineering is even done is irresponsible,” he said.

He said the next step is to take stock of which stakeholders are interested in pursuing the JPA plan.

Gov. Ted Strickland’s Ohio Department of Transportation received the $400 million from the Federal Railroad Administration to pursue the 3C project, but Kasich has said he’ll stop 3C upon taking office Jan. 10, citing the need for a $17 million annual state subsidy while Ohio faces a projected $8 billion two-year budget deficit.

Kasich also doubts a rail system would attract sufficient ridership. He asked Strickland to stop 3C planning and President Obama to allow the $400 million to be used for transportation infrastructure purposes in Ohio other than passenger rail service, or to use it for federal deficit reduction.

New York Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo is seeking to get federal funds that states such as Ohio forfeit.

Kasich made halting 3C a campaign promise and, Prendergast said, “we think it’s one of the first things he would kill” upon taking office. He said that means supporters are racing the clock to keep the project alive.

Prendergast said a key question for rail supporters is whether the federal funds can be transferred from ODOT to another entity. “Did Ohio (state government) receive the money or did the 3C project receive the money? That’s what we have to find out from the FRA.”

Mark Donaghy, executive director of the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority and chairman of the Ohio Public Transit Association, said the joint powers authority concept is “legally possible to do,” but probably wouldn’t work in practice without Kasich’s approval. “It’s hard to imagine that (idea) getting any traction without some change at (Kasich’s) level.”

He said the Dayton RTA wouldn’t want to take a leadership position without Kasich’s consent and without assurances that RTA wouldn’t be on the hook for subsidies.

Strickland this week wrote a letter urging Kasich to reconsider his position on 3C.

Barry Fromm, who wanted to create a manufacturing plant in Ohio for self-propelled diesel rail cars for 3C as head of US Railcar, said Kasich’s opposition could have long-term implications for the state.

“It’s like the interstate highway system in the Eisenhower years,” Fromm said. “What if Ohio said, ‘No, we don’t want to play?’ Ohio would be an island.”

Prendergast said any subsidy from the state wouldn’t be needed until 2016 and would come from Ohio Department of Transportation funds, not from Ohio’s suffering general fund. He said the subsidy issue is a “trumped-up, bogus argument by folks who are looking for ways to kill this project, not for ways of getting it done.”

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