What follows is a research paper for my English composition class outlining a possible political approach to passing the 3C proposal

A concerted political campaign is required for 3C to pass and be successful

The ABCs of 3C – A Political Roadmap to Rail Service

There is a proposal to build an inter-urban rail between Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and Cleveland.  While many plans have been proposed to implement such a link a recent disbursement from the American Recovery and Reinvestment act of 2009 has moved the matter forward.  But the plan is in danger of failing due to lack of political support and a dearth of details.  A concerted political plan will be required if an efficient rail link is to be brought to fruition.

The need for a concerted political strategy becomes clear when one sees how the public debate as calcified into a series of “playbacks” – prepared responses to whatever question is proposed.  Early in the process, in an effort generate “ball park” estimates concerning costs and timing the Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC) asked Amtrak for a draft proposal for rail service between Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and Cleveland.  The results of this report, despite being firmly stamped “Draft” and suffused with warnings that the results are quite preliminary (variances on costs are estimated at 30%) are being quoted by both sides as being firm facts.   (Frank, Lander & Hillblom, 2009, p 2)

One can tell the prejudices of the speaker just by which facts are cited.  Any mention of “39 MPH” or the estimated $17 million in subsidy that will be required each year places the speaker in the “anti” camp. (Examiner.com 2010)  Similarly, someone in favor will invariable state that the federal government is picking up the starting costs and that 478,000 people a year will use the service (“One Vote Margin lets 3-C rail plan move ahead” 2010).  These statements are repeated as fact even as they are likely wrong.  The 39 MPH estimate is due to slow orders around Springfield due to the condition and curvature of the tracks – travelers to Cleveland will see much better speeds. (Franke, p 5) The Amtrak report suggests that minimum capital costs of $517 million will be needed to start the service – much more than the $400 million earmarked to the state by the ARRA.  Both the subsidy level and ridership are predicated of variable factors Amtrak does not address.  For example, Amtrak’s proposed schedule works around the freight railroads.  (Franke, p 12) This points out to a drawback in the foundation document – key decisions are assumed rather than taken.

Two of the most important factors that will determine the attractiveness of rail service is its path and schedule.  In the case of what path to take Amtrak assumes the “shortest, most direct route from Cleveland to Cincinnati” (Franke p 5).   This is a change as most studies in the 1970s and 1980s presumed a route through Youngstown.  (ODOT, 2010, p10-2).  The schedule is built around the freight railroads’ needs instead of the potential needs of passengers.  What the state of Ohio received was the answer to the questions they asked rather than the answers they needed.

To get a better handle on operational questions and costs the ORDC requested that a more customary study be done by Parsons Brinkerhoff Inc., a noted consultancy on infrastructure with expertise in rail.  Unfortunately, Parsons Brinkerhoff was also party to a group in Ohio, Linking Ohio, lobbying in favor of the 3C proposal.  This brought predictable complaints with “(s)keptics of the rail effort question(ing) how a company that is actively lobbying for passenger rail can complete an objective study on the issue” (“One-vote margin lets 3-C rail plan move ahead”, 2010, para 11).  This further hardened positions on both sides of the issue.

The ORDC presented the proposal for the full study to the Ohio Controlling Board with a $25 million price tag.  The Controlling Board reviews all expenditure involving capital projects.  Such was the animosity over the project that the top Republican, State Sen. David Goodman (R-New Albany) spent a good portion of the meeting arguing that a super-majority (2/3rd vote) would be needed to approve the study in an effort to kill it which fits into the partisan breakdown of supporters and opponents (“One-vote margin lets 3-C rail plan move ahead”, 2010).  Republicans are arguing that this will be an expensive boondoggle that will only serve a fraction of the Ohio population.  Democrats are arguing that Ohio needs transportation alternatives and inter-urban rail service, even at slow speeds, is the bare minimum acceptable.  What is noteworthy is that both assertions could be true depending on how inter-urban rail is deployed.

With the public debate so hardened then without some change in the dynamic the contents of this study will be irrelevant.  Expending federal money requires a 2/3rds vote of the Control Board and, without Republican support, it will lack the votes to pass.  Also, the key, highly political decisions concerning route, scheduling, consist and other matters are still not being made at ODOT.  The appropriation passed was vague and I have been told by Jodi Elsass-Locker, Assistant Legal Counsel at the Ohio Department of Transportation that the instructions to Parsons Brinkerhoff are not readily available (personal communication, June 4, 2010).  $25 million seems a large sum for a document both politically and operationally irrelevant.

For proponents of the 3C concept, the idea of Republicans after spending 18 months running down the idea having a sudden, Damascene conversion in an election years in unlikely in the extreme.  There needs to be a plausible narrative that would allow someone such as Senator Goodman to vote in favor of something he was speaking against a few months earlier.  Fortunately, a method presents itself by which the political problems can be solved at the same time the project can be made operationally sound.

The first step is to acknowledge the shortcomings of the Amtrak report.  At an operational level this would allow the state to challenge some of the assumptions Amtrak made as well as lay the groundwork for opponents today (of the Amtrak proposal) to become supporters (of a new proposal) in a short time frame.  The critique of the Amtrak report’s shortcomings should be done by the ODOT but if it is not it can also be done by pressure groups.  Continuous refutation of the “39 MPH” mantra should be refuted along with the notion that the start-up costs are “free” because they are paid by the federal government.  In this way, by breaking both “playbacks” it would make the pro-3C camp look thoughtful and reasonable and, by extension, make the anti-3C group look unthinking and intransigent if they do not change their approach.

Hand in hand with acknowledging the Amtrak report’s shortcomings is to begin to add rigor, or the perception of rigor, to the process going forward.  This process is highly political and the idea that important decisions can be left to “the report” is risible.  For example, it is reasonable to expect that the level of support, regardless of party, from Akron-Canton and Youngstown area legislators would rise if the route were moved to go through that section of the state.   The state could begin to demand concessions from Amtrak concerning the operation of the line to make ODOT look as if it were in charge.  Most importantly, the freight railroads, the companies whose property the state will be using for this service, need to be made enthusiastic supporters of 3C.

Freight railroads will always say they are in favor of passenger rail; they have no choice.  Federal law grants Amtrak the right to run service over any freight line so long as an appropriate rent is paid (Wilner, 1994, p99).  Amtrak also has the right to forcibly purchase rail lines if it so chooses.  Given that Amtrak has this level of power to publicly snub passenger rail would require a brave freight railroad indeed .  Less publically, however, freight railroads have been known to delay passenger trains even though, under the law, they are supposed to give them priority.  They can schedule maintenance at inconvenient times and otherwise make passenger service unappealing.

Fortunately, there are steps that would both bring the freight companies and Republicans to support 3C.  According to the Amtrak report, among the upgrades required are thoase would also help freight railroads. An example is two rail junctions in downtown Columbus.  According to the Amtrak report Columbus already “has some of the highest rail traffic congestion in the state” (Franke, p6)

Trains coming south from Worthington to the proposed station at the Convention Center pass though a complex junction known as Control Point 138 or “CP138”.  The two tracks under the Convention Center today are actually run by two different railroads: the north one by Norfolk Southern and the south one by CSX.  Heading south just across the Scioto river is another intense bottleneck for the railroads at CP139 which is known colloquially as “Scioto Junction”.  Fixing these two areas would be helping the freight railroads (who are Ohio businesses and employers), help the environment and make freight transit through the Capital more efficient.  This could be the common ground where pro-3C groups can meet with pro-business groups.  It would lay the groundwork necessary for 3C without necessarily prejudicing the outcome in favor of passenger rail.  Proceeding forward in this way benefits the freight railroads and the 3C outcome.

None of the steps outlined requires special knowledge or office.  It doesn’t matter who, be it the head of ODOT, the Governor, or pressure groups, takes the political lead on 3C so long as someone does.  The hallmark of this approach is factual rigor – it puts a line underneath the frozen positions of the past and wrong-foots attempts to continue in that vein.  The process needs to be transparent with concrete proposals made by the political lead, with due consideration to political realities, and not assumed by an engineer in a far off office.  This process will provide a good chance that 3C not only passes into being but is a success.

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