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Ohio Passenger Rail Plan Must Reach Agreements With Freight Railroads

Despite uncertainty in the state legislature, supporters of passenger train service between Cleveland and Cincinnati via Columbus continue to make their case. A major stumbling block is forging agreements with freight lines to share their rails.

Executive director Matt Dietrich says the Ohio Rail Development Commission continues to negotiate with three freight railroads. Those companies own the tracks on which passenger trains linking Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati would operate. Dietrich says the needs of both freight rail and passenger train service must be weighed.

"It's part of our mission not just to develop passenger but to develop freight," Dietrich says. "And so we need to make sure that we take the opportunities to advance the abilities of utilizing rail to transport people and goods around our state, that we maintain that balance and make sure that all interests are considered."

A spokesman for Norfolk Southern Railroad says his freight company continues to negotiate with the Rail Development Commission but would not give details on the status of the talks.

In a letter to Gov. Strickland last month, Senate president and rail skeptic Bill Harris included the freight agreement as one of 18 questions. Harris also questions whether Ohio can afford to subsidize passenger rail even with the federal government offering a $400 million start-up grant.

Meanwhile Dietrich says the commission continues to work with the Federal Rail Administration and other stakeholders to make the project a reality.

"Right now we're working both with the FRA, all of our state agencies together who are involved in this, as well as the freight railroads who are involved in this," Dietrich says. "It's a process. Like any other large transportation project and that's how we're proceeding."

Supporters say the project would produce thousands of direct and indirect jobs. But the legislature's controlling board has yet to vote on whether it will authorize receipt of the $400 million grant.