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Support for passenger rail is picking up speed in Ohio. But there’s still far to go

An Amtrak train pulls into a station in Ashland, Virginia.
An Amtrak train pulls into a station in Ashland, Virginia.

It’s been nearly six decades since Ohio’s biggest cities were connected by passenger rail. But, thanks to planning grants from the Federal Railroad Association, there’s hope it could happen once again.

Ohio was among 44 other states to receive money from the federal government to plan new rail corridors across the state – including one that would transform Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland and Dayton into hubs of Amtrak service. Four Ohio routes were chosen as priorities for expanded passenger rail.

John Esterly, from All Aboard Ohio, a nonprofit that advocates for increased transportation choices in the state, said the demand for passenger rail is gaining momentum across the state, with people of all different backgrounds on board.

“From folks that just don't own automobiles or aren't able to drive to folks in the disability community … And then, last but probably not least, the hospitality industry, connecting these cities, for things like sporting events, music events, local attractions like museums and more, just really building out better connectivity in Ohio,” Esterly said.

Potential routes

The state’s major metropolitan areas would be connected through the "3C+D corridor," which would run from Cincinnati to Cleveland, stopping at Dayton and Columbus along the way. Another route could potentially connect northern Ohio cities, with passenger rail spanning from Cleveland to Toledo to Detroit.

Esterly said it could give the state’s travelers more usable time.

“You don't lose that two hours or four hours for a round trip that you would between the major cities in Ohio,” Esterly said. “ And it just really gives you an opportunity to enjoy a trip instead of having to participate in it.”

A map shows a blue line connecting Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and Cleveland. It's the planned 3C+D corridor.
Federal funds are giving advocates across the state new hope for a passenger rail route that connects Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and Cleveland.

The planned routes would also connect Ohio to other Midwestern states. A route, sponsored by the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, aims to join Chicago, Fort Wayne, Columbus and Pittsburgh. And urban Ohio wouldn’t be the only benefactor. The rail would make stops in Lima, Kenton, Marysville, Newark, Coshocton, Newcomerstown, Uhrichsville and Steubenville.

Plus, the state is also looking to expand its current offerings. The Cardinal Service, which shuttles people from Cincinnati to New York City and Chicago, makes trips three times a week. Officials want to see if it would be viable to increase its frequency to a daily service.

Economic benefits

A recent study by Scioto Analysis, a research firm that analyzes public policy, shows that connecting Ohio’s major metros could generate more than $100 million in economic impact for the state.

All Aboard Ohio commissioned the study to determine the direct impact of construction of the route, not including secondary impacts like property value increases. It predicted that revenue from ridership could generate more than $4 million annually in each city, with Greater Columbus and Cincinnati projected to benefit the most.

A table shows the economic impact of the passenger rail expansion in Cleveland-Elyria, Greater Columbus, Greater Dayton and Cincinnati.
Scioto Analysis
A Scioto Analysis study commissioned by All Aboard Ohio broke down the economic impact by region.

The expansion of the railway system is expected to initially create more than a thousand jobs, mainly in construction and operations fields.

“It's going to have a pretty dramatic effect on our state's economy, on wages and on future construction opportunities along the route,” Esterly said.

Long road ahead

But, Esterly said it’s important to remember that the state is just in the planning phase, and that turning these passenger rail dreams into reality will take a lot more time.

Probably toward the end of the decade 2029, 2030, we'll see these roots come online if we get all the way through,” Esterly said.

Ohio has suffered dashed rail dreams before, most recently with the hyperloop – a promise to provide high speed travel from Chicago to Columbus to Pittsburgh that never came to be. And in 2010, former governor John Kasich staunchly opposed the creation of passenger rail and returned $400 million in stimulus funds back to the federal government.

But, Esterly is optimistic that Ohio can get these proposed Amtrak expansions to the finish line this time. His organization is going around the state on a “Whistle Tour” to drum up excitement and support. Still, he said it will take a lot of consideration and planning.

The planning grant, which will help determine the feasibility, scope and cost estimates, is just the first of three phases. The next steps will aid in creating a financial plan, an environmental study and identify engineering and construction needs.

We want to go all the way through all three steps of the process to make sure that we're making an informed decision and doing what's best for Ohio,” Esterly said.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.