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Q&A: Rail veteran tackles 3C Corridor's burning questions

James E. Seney, served as executive director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission. Photos | Ben F
James E. Seney, served as executive director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission. Photos | Ben F

In January, Gov. Ted Strickland announced that Ohio had received $400 million in federal stimulus money to develop a "3C Corridor" passenger rail system linking Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati. Immediately, questions flew: Will the trains go fast enough? How many stops? Who will ride it? Will the benefits be worth the money? hiVelocity caught up with James E. Seney, who served as executive director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission under former Gov. Bob Taft. Seney, who oversaw the Taft Administration's original Ohio Hub rail plan to link Ohio to midwestern and east coast lines, says all questions are valid -- but that the availability of federal funding and the economic development benefits of passenger rail present an opportunity that's too good to pass up.

A lot of the discussion up until now has been focused on the links between four Ohio cities, but isn't the long-term plan to connect something like seven rail lines to regional and national rail lines?

Yes, Ohio fills the hole. If you look at Chicago-Midwest regional rail and you look at the east coast rail. . . there's nothing that connects it in the middle except the Ohio Hub. And what that serves to do is connect all the international airports of major consequence. So, if we can make the frequency and the pricing of all these airports available to the residents and businesses of the state of Ohio, we become a very competitive place to be because we won't have one international airport, we have access to five of them. And this is what I mean by off-premises value. You're not just buying a train.

Opponents of the 3C plan have objected to large subsidies, the time it will take to actually travel between cities and doubts about demand. Are those legitimate concerns or are they overlooking something?

They are legitimate concerns and they are overlooking some things. Again, you can't think of these things in isolation. The critical thing you have to do is be able to compete with the automobile at the legal speed limit. . . they are going to have to kick (the initial 40 mph estimated average speed) up. You're not going to get it above 45 or 50, (but) that's probably what the car is. The trains don't have to be faster than a car, they just need to be competitive.

It sounds like that's the key, then, to ridership and acceptance of trains as opposed to automobiles.

Right. You get the train in there operating, and the public's going to look at dependability, time, price, and safety. So where your train stops, how many stops and how long those stops are for are going to have a lot to do with the efficiency of the system and the time it takes. So, if a train can stop in an urban core -- which would have tremendous economic development impact for downtown Cleveland, downtown Columbus, Dayton and so forth -- it's also going to have to stop in the outer loops where it's convenient to the suburban traveler.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said recently that Ohioans will adapt to train travel even if they are not used to it now. Do you think once it's there people will be itching to try it?

Yes, I do. So, you'll have a whole bunch of people saying "let's go down and ride the train for something to do," for starters. (But) when we were doing the hub study we put surveyors in rest stops along I-71 and Route 23 and at gas stations. We spent a year doing this. And the people who drive (between major cities) on a regular basis -- they're TIRED of it. So I think you'll find there is a market for this. Once they get a chance to try the alternative, they will use it when they don't need their car. Also, there's some really hidden, interesting markets. . . it goes through all these university towns, goes through all the sports venues, and cultural venues, (and) those are also business corridors within Ohio. But, you'll have to get the bugs out fast and make improvements within the system so people will continue to be attracted to it.

Advocates say the initial passenger rail is just a first step to faster trains and more stops, and opponents say upgrading to faster trains and better service is going to take more dollars than what is represented right now in the stimulus money. Is there a point at which the investment outweighs the benefits?

I haven't seen one yet. Critics who are only looking at the (initial) cost and then the costs of continuous improvement aren't looking at the economic impact that takes place outside this train. What I would suggest Ohio do is create a mechanism whereby some of the costs of the train can be paid for by the increase in the economic value that takes place off the system. Let's create a district (surrounding each stop) and in that district we'll measure the income tax collections for 2009. Then, every year, we'll measure the income tax collections, and the increase over and above what's already been collected goes into the trust fund to help reduce the debt on development.

Besides the political environment, what are some of the other challenges in getting a viable passenger system up and running?

It is, in reality, a political problem. If you look at the history of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, putting that transportation corridor into play was an enormous political battle generated by the railroads because it competed with them as a lower cost alternative to moving freight. The thing you have to remember is all transportation is subsidized. Freeway systems cost $6 million a mile. The heavy load permit trucks in Ohio -- two-hundred-some-odd thousand permits were issued last year -- there is a subsidy of $45 million that the public pays to repair bridges and highways and things like that due to overweight loads that are not collected in fees from the (permit). Airports are subsidized. When a political critic says we can't do this because we'll have to subsidize it, he has to be reminded, and the public has to be made aware, that you are building an economic development asset. And right now is an extremely opportune time to do this . . . All of a sudden, there's $8 billion on the table (nationally) for high-speed rail. Don't be silly -- take it and build it!

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