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Senate may hold hearings on passenger rail plan

Senate President still leery

The Republican-controlled Ohio Senate may hold hearings on Governor Ted Strickland's plan to institute passenger rail service in the Cincinnati-Columbus-Cleveland corridor before deciding whether to allow the project to move ahead.

Strickland's Transportation Director, Jolene Molitoris, wants the Controlling Board to release $25 million for a final round of studies and engineering, but Harris could stop the entire project dead in its tracks.

State law requires at least a 5-2 vote of the Controlling Board for release of any capital funds for passenger rail service and one of the two Senate Republicans on the board – who are appointed by Harris – must vote in favor of the request.

Molitoris contends the planning and engineering should proceed because the Federal Railroad Administration won't make Ohio pay back that $25 million if it decides not to go ahead with the rail project.  Despite her assurance, Harris said, "I think we want to make sure that we've got something in writing from Washington that says that."

He said he's considering having the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee convene hearings on the passenger rail plan. The committee's chairman, Sen. Tom Patton (R-Strongsville), was skeptical of the concept early in 2009 when he was shepherding the state transportation budget (HB 2) through the Senate.

Earlier this month, Molitoris also delivered a 21-page response to a series of questions Harris had raised about the passenger rail plan.

Critics have cast doubt on the estimate that 478,000 riders would use the service in its first year of operation, especially given the very limited schedule of service. They've also questioned how the state would pay for the $17 million annual subsidy the system would require.

Proponents contend the ridership estimate is conservatively low and that the project would generate at least 255 "immediate construction jobs over a two year period" and 8,000 indirect and spin-off jobs in the vicinity of train stations.

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