By Mary Beth Lane The Columbus Dispatch • Friday December 23, 2016 5:39 AM
Plans are advancing to eventually start high-speed passenger train service between Chicago and Columbus, with stops in Fort Wayne, Lima and Marysville and other cities in Indiana and Ohio.
Don’t listen for the call of “all aboard” in Columbus anytime soon, however. Plans for the estimated $1.3 billion project are moving gradually.
Plans call for adding tracks, signals and other equipment to current freight routes to accommodate passenger trains that would travel up to 110 mph, and would take riders between Chicago and Columbus in three hours, 40 minutes, said William Murdock, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.
Development of the western portion of the proposed passenger rail service took another step this week.
Indiana and Ohio officials announced at a news conference Monday in Fort Wayne that the Federal Railroad Administration has approved a $350,000 study to examine preliminary engineering, environmental impact and other issues along the Chicago-Fort Wayne-Lima stretch of the proposed route.
Local cities, businesses and others along that portion of the proposed route will fund the study, which is scheduled to start in January and finish in the fall.
And even though the federal OK to conduct the study doesn’t mean approval of the route or the project — far from it, said Lima Mayor David Berger, a passenger-rail advocate — it marks a significant step forward.
“Our ultimate goal is to have passenger rail established on the entire corridor, but the piece in Columbus isn’t as far along,” said Berger, who raised $58,000 from businesses in his northwestern Ohio city to help fund the $350,000 study.
No similar environmental studies have been conducted or funding identified to do them on the proposed route’s Lima-to-Columbus portion, which would include stops in Kenton and Marysville. No funding has been identified to build the project, no firm timetable has been established, and whether Amtrak or another operator would run it is not known.
The initial study that will be conducted on the Chicago-Lima leg and agreements among cities to support passenger rail are all part of preparing to build the project should federal money become available.
“These projects take a lot of work and study and collaboration and planning to pull them off,” Murdock said. “We want to be ready if there’s an opportunity to fund it. That’s why we’re taking the long view.”
Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther has not said whether the city would help fund an initial environmental impact study, like the one announced Monday for the western portion, for the Lima-Columbus leg.
“Mayor Ginther is committed to the future of mobility through the Smart Columbus initiative,” said spokeswoman Robin Davis. The $50 million initiative makes Columbus a testing ground for new transportation technology including self-driving vehicles.
“That is where our immediate focus is,” Davis said. “We’re not ruling anything out. Our focus is transportation in Columbus, and a smart mobility system that can grow into the future.”
Columbus hasn’t had passenger train service since Amtrak’s National Limited pulled out about 40 years ago. The Columbus metropolitan region is the largest in the country without passenger trains.
Gov. John Kasich killed a plan by former Gov. Ted Strickland to link Columbus to Cincinnati and Cleveland by high-speed passenger rail, saying he was concerned the project would be too expensive and wouldn’t draw enough riders.
Supporters of the Chicago-Columbus rail project said it would help drive economic development.
“It opens up opportunities that we don’t currently have,” said Eric Phillips, executive director of the Union County-Marysville Economic Development office. “Having options for transportation is key.”