Ohio Takes One Step Closer to Statewide Passenger Rail

January 17, 2023

“It’s a good time to be in transportation!” says William Murdock, Executive Director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC).

Speaking to KJK’s Samir Dahman and James Scherer, Mr. Murdock, who heads one of Ohio’s largest regional planning agencies, spoke with excitement about the work MORPC and others are engaged in to bring investment to Ohio’s regional transportation infrastructure. Specifically, the work being done to implement long-awaited, but persistently elusive, passenger rail infrastructure between Ohio’s largest cities.

Passenger Rail in Ohio: Not a Thing Since 1979, But There’s Hope

Central Ohio is home to 2.4 million people and growing, and it boasts a thriving economy set to benefit from massive investments from companies such as Intel. Yet, it has been devoid of any inter-city rail links since 1979 and is one of the most densely populated regions of the nation without any such connections. Meanwhile, other similarly situated corridors have long enjoyed the benefits of inter-city rail, such as the Piedmont route connecting Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Empire Service route connecting Albany, New York to New York City.

The initiatives to bring rail back to the state’s interior date back to the mid-2000s, when the Ohio Department of Transportation proposed the “Ohio Hub” project, intended to take advantage of funds made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The project would have reinstated passenger service between Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, but it was abandoned in 2011 when the state refused the funds necessary to pursue the project.

Since then, Ohio inter-city rail has been a dream for state, regional and city planners – always pursued, but just out of reach. But with the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (the Act), realizing the dream of Ohio passenger rail service is closer than ever. The Act allocated $66 billion to Amtrak to implement long-needed equipment upgrades, safety improvements, and most exciting of all–for many like Murdock–expansion of service.

Amtrak has already put the funds granted to it under the Act to swift use, announcing long-awaited upgrades to its rolling stock and passenger amenities, as well as inking a $2 billion deal with Siemens Mobility for Amtrak’s next-generation ALC-42 locomotives, capable of speeding passengers along in comfort at up to 120 mph.

3C+D = Passenger Rail in Ohio?

Amtrak’s interest in expanding the national rail network in Ohio was solidified by the recent unveiling of its “3C+D” proposed corridor (the Corridor)–a new network of routes that would connect Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton by 2035. The Corridor would connect those cities with intermediary stops such as Crestline, Delaware, Springfield and Sharonville, Ohio, running multiple trains per day. Initially, the Corridor would enable travel between Cleveland and Columbus in 2.5 hours, with those travel times decreasing as infrastructure investments in existing trackage and equipment enable higher-speed travel over time.

In addition, the corridor would connect with numerous existing transportation networks, including Cleveland’s RTA and Cleveland Hopkins Airport, Columbus’ COTA and Cincinnati’s Metro systems, as well as Amtrak’s existing routes to Chicago, New York and Washington D.C. via the Capitol Limited, Cardinal and Lakeshore Limited routes, all of which are expected to run more frequent service in the future thanks to investment from the Act. According to Murdock, 3C+D is only the beginning, with possible direct connections in the future from Ohio to Detroit, Pittsburgh and other communities in the Great Lakes and Allegheny regions.

State and Local Government Support

The Corridor has won widespread support throughout the state, from locals and local governments alike, says Murdock. During recent updates to MORPC’s 2050 Metropolitan Transportation Plan, there was tremendous feedback from community members, public and private partners, institutions, interest groups and local governments requesting passenger rail service return to the region along multiple corridors.

MORPC has already submitted an expression of interest in working with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to create Service Development Plans for new inter-city passenger rail service on the following existing rail corridors, in addition to 3C+D:

  • Chicago–Columbus–Pittsburgh Corridor
  • Columbus–Toledo–Detroit Corridor
  • Columbus–Lancaster–Logan–Athens Corridor
  • Columbus–Chillicothe–Portsmouth Corridor
  • Zanesville and Western Scenic Railroad – Mt. Perry Railroad Expansion

Likewise, Governor Mike DeWine has recently voiced support for the expansion of passenger rail in Ohio and has asked the Ohio Rail Development Commission to work with Amtrak to determine the cost and feasibility of the proposed Corridor. Dan Tierney, the Governor’s spokesman, has said that such initiatives will help the state gather more information to make an informed decision, and that officials in Columbus are “strongly considering” the expansion. The Governor’s support was met with praise from Cleveland City Council in July when it passed a resolution commending DeWine’s openness to the expansion and requesting that the state focus on implementing the 3C+D Corridor, as well as increased service along Amtrak’s existing routes to Cleveland.

Grace Gallucci, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, also envisions the benefits of increased service to cities such as Cleveland. “We have really good ridership for service that only comes in the middle of the night,” said Gallucci, adding:

“If we had our own originations and destinations, and frequencies that included daytime service – our ridership would absolutely increase exponentially.”

Amtrak has already released a proposal that envisions over a dozen trains passing through Cleveland every day.

Looking Forward

The next step in pursuing these initiatives is the awarding of federal grant money to local agencies such as MORPC to complete feasibility studies and provide Amtrak and the FRA with the information necessary to finalize plans for expanded service. With these plans in place, Amtrak and the FRA will begin the task of leveraging their statutory and regulatory power to negotiate the final routes and schedules with the railroad companies on whose tracks the corridors will run.

The expansion of Amtrak’s inter-city rail network in underserved areas has been presented as a solution to lessen racial and economic inequality by focusing on expansion into areas with large Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities. According to Murdock, rural communities are some of the most excited at the prospect of being connected by rail, with stations in their towns providing economic opportunities and making the community more attractive to live in.

In addition to driving equitable development of the state’s transportation infrastructure, the Corridor and future expansion will spur further economic investment. Newly connected cities and towns will require new stations and infrastructure to service new passengers. One such example occurred when Amtrak expanded to the town of Meridian, Mississippi when an initial investment of $7 million in a new station led to an additional $135 million in public and private investment in the surrounding area. Already, the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority has unveiled plans and initial designs for a $23 million station that would connect passengers directly to the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

As the process to bring passenger rail back to Ohio’s interior progresses, new economic opportunities and incentives will follow close behind. To learn more about how you can be a part of and benefit from these developments, contact KJK’s Economic Development & Incentives attorneys Samir Dahman (SBD@kjk.com; 614.427.5750) or Jim Scherer (JJS@kjk.com; 216.736.7296).