Governor Mike DeWine made news in February when he announced that his administration would apply for federal money to study Amtrak expansion in Ohio.
The Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC) has since submitted an application for two corridors – Cleveland-Columbus-Dayton-Cincinnati (known as the 3C+D line), and Cleveland-Toledo-Detroit.
If approved by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the state would be awarded $500,000 for each corridor. Those funds would go toward a consultant who would identify the track improvements, new stations and other equipment or facilities needed on each corridor to get passenger service up and running.
But an application has been submitted to the same grant program for another route that could have a big impact on Columbus and several other Ohio cities.
Earlier this month, the city of Fort Wayne, Indiana and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) applied for $500,000 to study the Chicago-Columbus-Pittsburgh corridor.
That route, which has been the focus of planning efforts by MORPC and other groups on and off for nearly a decade, would follow existing freight lines and include stops in Marysville and Lima, among other cities.
John Gardocki, MORPC’s Transit and Mobility Manager, said that Fort Wayne officials reached out to ask the agency to be a co-applicant, knowing that it had done planning work on the corridor previously and strategizing that the grant would have a better chance of being awarded if a bigger city along the route was a part of the application.
Although the same corridor was also touted as a possible route for the futuristic hyperloop technology, Gardocki said that passenger rail is now MORPC’s focus (the company behind the Columbus hyperloop proposal laid off over a hundred employees in 2022 and now focuses solely on transporting cargo, not people).
The Chicago to Pittsburgh route, which MORPC calls Midwest Connect, could also potentially be expanded to include service to Washington DC or New York City. Making the line longer could have the added benefit of bumping it up into the range of what Amtrak considers a long haul route, which means that operations would be funded by Amtrak and not the states that the route passes through.
For the 3C+D corridor, Amtrak officials have previously said that federal money would cover the initial cost of establishing service, but some level of financial support from the state or other local entities would likely be necessary to support the line long term.
About $66 billion in federal funding has been allocated to Amtrak expansion nationally via the bipartisan infrastructure bill that was signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021.
The FRA will make its decisions on which corridors receive this round of funding by August or September, according to Gardocki.
One advantage of the Chicago-Columbus-Pittsburgh corridor is that the State of Ohio owns the railroad tracks that extend east from Columbus to the West Virginia border.
“We could make capital enhancements to that already, without having to work with the different private railroad companies,” Gardocki said, “so that does give us a leg up verses the 3C+D line, which has to coordinate with CSX and Norfolk Southern.”
“We do think that this line is regionally significant,” he added. “It goes through very large urban centers that need services, so we do think it’s very competitive.”
Columbus hasn’t had passenger rail service since 1977. In 2010, Governor John Kasich returned $400 million in federal money for passenger rail expansion – specifically to connect Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati – shortly after taking office. Fort Wayne lost its Amtrak service in 1990.