If you’ve lived in Cincinnati long enough, you’ve heard it all before:
Amtrak officials are once again floating the idea of new routes and expanded passenger service out of Cincinnati, including new daily service to Chicago and along a corridor running north to Cleveland.
Skeptics are quick to point out similar plans were introduced under Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland in 2010 and were unceremoniously canceled when Gov. John Kasich took office the next year.
Still, this time could be different.
Unlike previous proposals, Amtrak is offering to pay up to 100% of the start-up and operating costs for new or expanded service out of Cincinnati for the first two years, including the cost of new rail cars, locomotives and leasing or buying access to tracks.
That could be a “game-changer,” according to Derek Bauman, the Southwest Ohio regional director for the rail advocacy group, All Aboard Ohio.
“People say they love the concept and the idea, but how are we going to pay for it?” Bauman said. “That’s always the challenge. But Amtrak is talking about picking up the tab without matching funds” from the state.
The funds would come from an envisioned $60 billion passenger federal rail program. A bill for such an idea passed the Democratic-controlled House last year but died in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Amtrak officials and rail enthusiasts have more reason for optimism in the wake of the 2020 presidential election and Democrats taking control of both houses of Congress.
President Joe Biden, a longtime passenger rail supporter known as “Amtrak Joe,” has pledged a “second great railroad revolution” – including developing underused routes in many states, such as the so-called 3-C corridor connecting Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.
“We will call on Congress to authorize and fund Amtrak’s expansion in such corridors by allowing us to cover most of the initial capital and operating costs of new or expanded routes,” Amtrak said in a statement to The Enquirer.
‘An uphill battle’
Even if Congress authorizes and fully funds Amtrak’s new plans, they would eventually need state support.
Amtrak wants to use federal dollars for the first two years of its planned expansion in Ohio, but the state would have to kick in a growing share of operating costs after that.
Expenditures on passenger rail by the Ohio Department of Transportation, the Ohio Rail Development Commission or any other state agency would require supermajority approval by the state Controlling Board.
“Federal money is always good to get something started, but the state has to be committed to it in the long-term, and that could be an uphill battle,” said Nicholas Little, director of railway education at the Center for Railway Research and Education at Michigan State University.
It’s too early to speculate on what role the state might play, based on a joint statement from the Ohio transportation department and the rail development commission.
“Currently, the role of the state in the plan is not clear and we are not aware of any needed action by Ohio at this time. We look forward to hearing more about what Amtrak’s proposal could mean to Ohio as the federal transportation bill advances through that process,” the statement reads.
At least one GOP state lawmaker, State Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, said the Amtrak’s plans deserve serious consideration in a recent guest column in the Springfield News-Sun.
“Overall, the proposal from Amtrak provides Ohio with a unique opportunity to connect people and economies,” Antani wrote in his column. “I know this requires state authorization. With caution in mind, Ohio should do its due diligence in considering this proposal and I look forward to discussion.”
What might Cincinnati’s rail future look like?
Amtrak hasn’t released a detailed plan yet, but it’s coming soon, according to spokesman Marc Magliari, who said railroad executives have met with state and local officials across the region “to understand their interests in new and improved Amtrak service.”
The rail operator also has offered glimpses of its corridor development plans to several different groups, including the Washington, D.C.-based Rail Passengers Association.
According to Sean Jeans-Gail, the nonprofit’s vice president of policy and government affairs, Amtrak’s latest proposal would run more than a dozen trains per day out of Cincinnati along five new or expanded routes, including:
►Four daily round trips with intermediate station stops between Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Chicago.
► Three daily round trips with intermediate station stops in Ohio between Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and Cleveland.
► Three daily round trips with intermediate station stops between Chicago, Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit.
►Two daily round trips with intermediate station stops between Cleveland and Buffalo, New York.
► And, one daily round trip with intermediate station stops between Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
Currently, Amtrak offers just three one-way trips between Cincinnati and Chicago each week on its Cardinal line, leaving from Cincinnati’s Union Terminal.
By comparison, Amtrak operates 16 trains a day out of Milwaukee, boarding more than 600,000 Amtrak passengers there annually.
“We’ve been having a passenger rail renaissance in U.S. for the past several years, but Ohio is still underserved,” Jeans-Gail said. “If Amtrak can come in and provide 100% of the startup costs, that obviously moves things along a lot quicker in Ohio.”
Amtrak’s goal is to provide daily morning and evening service to Chicago from Cincinnati, and morning, midday and evening service each day along the 3-C corridor.
Key: Fast trains, frequent service
Supporters say the Ohio route would provide convenient, stress-free service for hundreds of thousands of commuters, spurring economic development, connecting rural communities and helping to reduce roadway congestion and pollution.
Meanwhile, expanded service to Chicago would give rail enthusiasts a slew of new options for business trips, weekend getaways and other leisure travel.
But commuter and long-distance travel are two separate markets, according to Michigan State’s Little, who notes demand for most transit service has been pummeled by the pandemic.
“The question for the commuter line is “What is the future of business going to look like?’’ Little said. “We see a lot of companies likely to change away from standard 9-5 office hours, five days a week, and maybe only having people in the office one or two days a week. That will seriously reduce commuter traffic.”
The long-distance route from Cincinnati to Chicago may ultimately have more takers, he said: “With the route from Cincinnati to Chicago, you’re connecting some pretty big population centers.”
Still, Amtrak can’t kick back and rely on a build-it-and-they-will-come strategy.
“The key to success is having fast trains and frequent service that’s reliable and leaves at regular departure times so people can plan their day around it,’’ Little said.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Can ‘Amtrak Joe’ bring expanded rail transport to Cincinnati? It won’t be easy, experts say.