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My Concerns with Ohio’s New Passenger Rail

I’m a huge fan of mass transit and public transportation and the funding required to keep it up and running. Couple this with the fact that air travel – which I used to love – has become something I now only tolerate when it’s absolutely necessary, and you’ve got someone who was really excited about Ohio’s new passenger rail system.

Now that the plans are out there, I could hardly be more disappointed.

See, I live in envy of the transportation options of friends and family who live in the New York and Northern Virginia areas. When we visit, I absolutely dig the subways and metro trains and buses. And during the four years I spent commuting 57 miles one-way from North Canton to Cleveland, I would have gladly spent more than the equivalent of my gas money for the option of getting on a train at, say, the Akron-Canton Airport and riding downtown to Tower City.

So here’s why the new passenger rail feels like a gut punch: From my admittedly Northeast Ohio-biased perspective, our corner of the state really gets shafted. (To say nothing of Toledo – which is exactly what the new system does.) But more than me taking it personally, the plan essentially ignores a vast portion of the state’s most populous region.

Look at the map of the route accompanying that Plain Dealer story. You’re talking six total stops: two each in Cleveland and Cincinnati, one apiece in Dayton and Columbus. The number of stops isn’t really my issue, though – it’s their placement.

For example: Dayton and Columbus are 70-some miles apart, but the new passenger rail avoids the shortest route from Columbus to Cincinnati so that Dayton can be on the line. This connects Dayton with both of its bigger neighbors and could, it seems, easily accommodate the schedules of commuters to and from those two larger cities. Hypothetically, Cincinnati and Columbus get to keep their income tax from workers in their limits, while Dayton and its suburbs get to keep their residents and property taxes.

Now look at the Northeast corner. The rail runs from Cleveland’s west side down through the largely rural north central part of the state, completely avoiding the populous corridor stretching south along I-77 through Akron and Canton. In other words, anyone south of Cleveland will actually have to drive a fair piece away from Columbus in order to pick up the train that runs to Columbus. Furthermore, a close examination of the state’s geography reveals that an alarming number of people do live south of Cleveland because the city’s northern border is a Great Freaking Lake.

Realizing these are the very early days of this project and there is room for develpment and change and schedule tweaking, I just don’t see right now where the regular travelers are for this line.

As the Plain Dealer points out, working in one of the Three C’s and living in another isn’t suddenly going to become a viable option. That leaves tourism. And while there is recreation business to be had, given the travel time involved and then the added costs of transportation in and around your destination, I’m not seeing much incentive to take the train when driving I-71 can get you from Columbus to Cincinnati in four hours or so. Who in Youngstown or Canton is going to drive an hour and a half or two hours to the west side of Cleveland so they can get on a train to Columbus? Akronites already have a pretty decent deal, since I-71 runs just to the west of the city thorugh Medina County and offers a straight freeway shot to the state’s capital.

So from a  practicality standpoint, all of this seems to make the new rail virtually useless to a huge portion of the most populous corner of the state. The whole “if you build it they will come” approach seems foolish to me. Why not put the rail where “they” already are?

Look at this U.S. Census Bureau population density map from 2000:

Ohio Population Density, 2000 census

See that big well-shaded area in the upper right corner right? There are 10 counties there with a population greater than 100,000 according to this map of 2006 population estimates. (And an eleventh, Geauga county, was at 95,676.) How many of these counties are touched by this rail? Two: Lorain and Cuyahoga, which occupy the northwestern-most points of the region.

In fact, look at that 2006 list again, with the numbers handily compiled into this chart from US-Places.com:

Graph: US-Places.com

It’s topped by nine Ohio counties with populations greater than 300,000 people. Leading the way, of course, are those which are home to the three C’s: Cuyahoga (Cleveland), Franklin (Columbus) and Hamilton (Cincinnati).

Fourth on the list is Summit County, with a population of 545,931 and anchored by Akron – utterly untouched by the new rail line.

Fifth is Montgomery County, where you’ll find Dayton, with its own proposed rail stop.

Sixth is Lucas County, home to Toledo,which as I’ve noted, falls far outside the plan. In my estimation, though, its situation is different from the Northeast region in that it’s surrounded by a lot of farmland, and no other county in the region has a population above 125,000. (In fact, only two other counties in my 21-county ballparking  of Northwest Ohio even reach past the 100,000-person mark.

Seventh on the list is Stark County, where I live, and its major city of Canton, which anchors the south end of that I-77 corridor I mentioned earlier. Again – no connection to the new rail system whatsoever.

Butler County just north of Cincinnati, and Lorain County, already mentioned, occupy spots eight and nine on the population list, and both are directly touched by the rail.

I think it’s also worth noting that counties 10, 11 and 12 on the list are three of the remaining four in Ohio with populations greater than 200,000.  They are  Mahoning (Youngstown), Trumbull (Warren) and Lake counties, all three of them in the northeast,  and once more, all untouched by the new rail.

Number 13?  Warren County, right along the Dayton-Cincinnati route.

While some say this project  isn’t about commuters, that’s fine, but then don’t tell me it’s about getting congestion off the freeways, because I think those are two totally different things to address.

The thing is, for all of these doubts, I really want this to succeed. I want it to draw passengers and bring in cash so maybe it can be expanded and hey, maybe even spark the development of high-speed rail. I want it to lead to a day when I can go visit my Columbus and Cincinnati friends by train and be back to work on Monday, or maybe a day when my brothers and I can go catch a Browns game without driving out of our own county.

In other words, I desperately want to be wrong about all of this.

But right now, I just don’t see these rails leading to any of those destinations.

January 31, 2010 Posted by | Current Affairs, Ohio, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

   

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