Review of the Actual Project
Back in the 1980's, a bullet train was proposed to link up the cities of Ohio, to be funded by a dedicated sales tax increase. That issue went down to defeat.
Then in the 1990's, the High Speed Rail framework was established under Clinton, with lofty goals and next to no money. Under this framework, Ohio went back to the drawing board and came up with a far more capital-efficient system - originally under the Ohio HSR Commission, which was then merged into the Ohio Rail Development Commission. The result was the Ohio Hub plan.
In the Ohio Hub plan, the first stage would be the Triple-C corridor, from Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati. The second stage would connect to Chicago via the Michigan corridor, by improving the existing Cleveland/Toledo corridor and then restore the Toledo/Detroit corridor. The third stage streamlines the Cleveland/Chicago route to go via Northern Indiana, with a Columbus/Chicago route also via Northern Indiana and a Cincinnati/Chicago route via Indianapolis. The fourth stage extends the Cleveland/Chicago connection east to Pittsburgh, with the preferred alignment via Youngstown. The fifth stage connects Pittsburgh to Columbus and fills in the link to connect Columbus to Detroit. The final stage completes the Triple C to Buffalo and Toronto.
And how long would this take? Well, the stagings above were designed to be rolled out in sequential years, so if Stage One was built in 2013, the first Chicago stage could be done in 2014, the remainder of the Chicago stages in 2015, the Pittsburgh connections by 2017, and the Lakeshore extension by 2018.
Mind, those are not the years on the map - the years on the map are from 2010 to 2016.
The holdup is, of course, capital cost. The ridership studies indicate that the Triple-C corridor in particular will be a strong performer with 110mph passenger trains, which gives Columbus/Cincinnati times competitive with average driving times and Columbus/Cleveland times faster than average driving times. But constructing a 110mph Triple-C corridor would cost in excess of $1b.
And then there is Republican Obstructionism, following the pattern of Republican sabotage of all transport alternatives that economize on the use of Petroleum. And this oil-industry-subsidized obstructionism makes perfect sense. The oil industry is facing the prospect of peak oil, when rates of oil production will be declining from one year to the next. Their golden parachute out of this declining industry is, of course, the windfall gain from explosions in the price of oil. And establishing alternatives that economize on petroleum means that it is easier to reduce consumption in response to oil price shocks, which means that oil price shocks do not swing as high as supply ratchets down.
Now, supporting this entrenched private interest also means opposing employment, income growth, and national defense, but you have to have your priorities, and the Republican priorities in the area of transport are clearly the interests of the oil companies.
These plans were drawn up in the middle of the Bush administration, which was ardently anti-rail - the Bush family is of course right at the heart of the transfer of oil industry loyalties from the Democratic to the Republican party - and so it was an open question where the capital funding was going to come from.
Then Governor Strickland was elected, but Bush was still President, and so it was straightforward, given that the State of Ohio was not going to be borrowing $1b+ to build this thing, to just say, "go ahead and keep planning, but there is no money."
But then Obama was elected, and as one of the last minute deals in the passage of the Second Stimulus, $8b was set aside for High Speed Rail. Now there is Federal Money on offer. Oops.
What to do now?
There is a Plan. Let us call it "The Plan"
Now, it is unlikely that there was a single meeting sometime in 2008 shortly after Stimulus II was passed, to come out with "The Plan". However, one step at a time, the dance that is Republican Obstructionism has emerged:
- Insist that jumping straight to a 110mph starter line is too big a leap from nothing, leading to development of a Amtrak-speed "starter line" as a first step toward High Speed Rail
- Insist as the price of passage by the Republican State Senate that capital spending on the rail would require a 5-2 supermajority from the controlling board
- If the project was funded by the Federal Government, complain that the conventional starter line that the Republicans insisted on in 2009 is too slow in 2010
- Demand "answers" to "questions" and declare all answers provided unsatisfactory to justify a party line blocking vote
- Ohio loses project, Governor Strickland seen as failure, Kasich more likely to win Statehouse
Of course, one cannot carry this much water for Big Oil without a cover story.
The "blowing smoke" part of Smoke and Mirrors
So, turning back to the coverage of the recent turn of events, consider how well buried the lede is: the presumptive Republican nominee for Governor clearly and deliberately tries to con Ohio out of $400m in Federal Funding, and its hidden inside an absurd puffed up controversy over why the Director of the Ohio Department of Transportation was not there:
When Jennifer Farmer, ODOT's newest deputy director as of mid March who served as point person for the quartet of agency responders who fielded questions from board members, was asked why director Molitoris was not present, Farmer said "she wasn't invited." When Sens. John Carey (R-Wellston), David Goodman (R-Columbus) and Rep. Jay Hottinger (R-Newark), the Republican minority, were each asked if it was the practice of the board to extend invitations to agency directors to come stand before the board, their responses ranged from quizzical looks to surprise about Farmer's statement. According to these seasoned board members, the responsibility of who should appear before the board to best represent the agency and the agenda item falls to the agency itself.
As recently as last Friday, Goodman and Hottinger said they expected Molitoris to show up to defend a project that could vault from just being a debate about public policy into a major partisan issue that could affect whether voters in November choose to renew Gov. Strickland for another four years or replace him with GOP challenger John Kasich, who said money awarded to Ohio for the 3C rail project could be better spent on Ohio roads and highways. Republican senators said later that it was not uncommon for Attorney General Richard Cordray or Commerce Director Kimberly Zurz to show up for sums far less than $25 million. Over the years, covering the Controlling Board as a credentialed statehouse reporter, I have personally witness former AG Jim Petro or former SOS Ken Blackwell who stood to take questions on projects that were merely hundreds of thousands, not the size of ODOT's request today.
Now, I should stress that this is from the online Cleveland Examiner ... so lets see how well the more established papers do on burying the lede in this story.
The Plain Dealer's coverage of Kasich's remarks is:
The Cincinnati Enquirer's scoop on the story is:
Not All the Ledes were Buried
However, the other main lede did, in fact, make the headlines:
So, how was the plan to derail the project in the controller board bypassed?
There was one very important Republican who wants the project to succeed: Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. For the 3C starter project to stay on course, $25m in studies and design need to be completed this year, so that ground can be broken in 2011 and the trains can begin running later in 2012.
And, of course, that $25m was included in the $400m awarded for the 3C starter line.
And, of course, that was part of Stimulus II, and so, unlike most Federal capital grants, no state match is required.
So what did the Federal Department of Transport say? That spending the $25m in funding for the final study and design work would not commit Ohio to proceeding with the construction of the line. Therefore, the decision whether to approve the study was not a capital spending decision - and since it was already fully funded, only required a 4-3 majority vote by the controlling board.
As the Enquirer reported:
Jennifer Farmer, legislative affairs director for the Ohio Department of Transportation, told Goodman and the rest of the board that ODOT has answered every question it can in the absence of this study, which will include aerial views of the so-called 3C corridor, a 255-mile freight rail line that runs from Cincinnati to Cleveland via Dayton and Columbus.
"A preliminary study is not a capital improvement," Farmer said. "We're not asking for infrastructure."
Farmer said reviving Amtrak passenger rail across Ohio will reduce pollution, ease highway congestion and serve an increasing number of Ohioans who do not own cars. The project also entails expanding capacity for freight trains.
But Farmer said ODOT can't move forward on the rail project without further study.
She and other ODOT officials assured legislators that the study does not require Ohio to build the passenger rail line, also financed with federal stimulus money.
... Ken Prendergast, executive director of All Aboard Ohio, said he's "completely baffled why anyone would vote against this."
Prendergast said the study will provide Republicans and Democrats with answers to questions they have been asking, without hurting the state's finances or requiring Ohio to build anything.
So the study can go ahead. So the immediate effort to sabotage the infrastructure Ohio needs in the 21st century has been fended off.
We're not out of the woods yet
Of course, we are not out of the woods yet. If the Republicans win either a House Majority or the Statehouse in November, then the balance of the $400m heads off to be spent on rail elsewhere, and Ohio's utter dependency on an obsolete transport system continues unabated. From the Enquirer:
The Controlling Board's 4-3 majority would shift from Democrat to Republican if Strickland loses re-election to Republican John Kasich on Nov. 2, or if Republicans regain a majority of the Ohio House, where Democrats hold 53 of 99 seats. The Ohio Senate is controlled by Republicans, who hold 21 of 33 seats. All Ohio House seats, and half the Senate seats, are up for election this fall.
But ... well, so what else is new? Aiding and abetting the ongoing decline of the once-robust Ohio economy is something that the Republicans have been doing with increasing enthusiasm over the past thirty years. It goes without saying that if the Republicans win, the Ohio economy is screwed.
The good news is that, despite Republican efforts to force the capital spending vote in the lead-up to an gubernatorial election, when Republicans have the greatest incentive to stick together to make an incumbent Democratic governor look bad ... the capital spending vote will now take place early in 2011. If the Democrats win, then the vote will take place at the time when the incentive to cut a deal is the greatest ...
... and after the Gubernatorial campaign has given Governor Strickland an opportunity to hammer home the point that if Ohio turns down the $400m, it just goes to some other state.
So we are by no means out of the woods yet ... but the path that can take us out of the wood is in sight.
The Headliners: Power and the Passion / Midnight Oil
People, wasting away in paradise
Going backwards, once in a while
Takin' your time, give it a try
What do you believe, what do you believe
What do you believe is true?
And nothing they say makes a difference this way
Nothing they say will do
You take all the trouble that you can afford
At least you won't have time to be bored
You take what you get, you get what you please
Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees
It's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees
Oh, the power and the passion
Oh, the temper of the time
Oh, the power and the passion
Sometimes you've got to take the hardest line