DANIEL BURNHAM WAS an American architect and urban planner. In Columbus, we can thank him for the Wyandotte Building and the Columbus Union Station, which served railroad passengers. Passenger rail service existed for over 125 years in Columbus—from February 27, 1850 to April 28, 1977.
Columbus Union Station, as it is recalled today, was actually the third Union Station in Columbus. The previous two served in the nineteenth century, and their replacement and upgrade reflected the rapid growth in traffic and importance of Columbus’s railroads at that time. The subsequent decline in rail passenger traffic following World War II was symbolized in Union Station’s demolition and replacement with a convention center in the early 1980s.
Ironically, just after the demolition, the oil shock of 1979 pressured the Ohio government to development a statewide plan for high-speed passenger rail service as a way to hedge the risk of future oil shocks. An economy simply cannot move or function without reliable energy sources and efficient transportation. That being so, why hasn’t Ohio built a statewide passenger rail system over the last three decades?
Many of us can recall the recent 3C passenger rail plan to link Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. Former Ohio Governor Bob Taft conceived the idea during a trade trip to Japan were he was inspired by the Japanese bullet trains. As history would have it, another Republican governor would kill the project in 2010, even after Ohio was awarded $400 million from the federal government to cover the costs. Imagine where we could have been if the 3C passenger rail project was judged based on its public benefits rather than scoring quick political points against President Obama, who threw support behind passenger rail in 2009.
Demand for intercity passenger rail is growing. Amtrak has set a new ridership record with 2013 being its best year ever at 31.6 million passengers. John R. Stilgoe of Harvard University writes that the convergence of globalization, congestion, energy prices and discomforts of air travel has driven a renewed interest in the role of rail for both passengers and freight.
The US High Speed Rail Association, an independent, nonprofit, trade association envisions a 17,000 mile national high speed rail system by 2030, connecting regions, cities and towns in an integrated, multi-modal system. Among the principal benefits: revitalizing the economy, reducing congestion and cutting the nation’s carbon footprint.
A rail advocacy group in Fort Wayne, Indiana called the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association (NIPRA) unveiled a study last summer looking at the feasibility of running a 110-mph passenger rail line between Columbus and Chicago.
The study, which calls for upgrading existing freight lines, estimates that the entire project would cost about $1.285 billion and be eligible for federal funding that would cover 80 percent of the cost. It puts the economic benefits at over $6 billion (new jobs, development around stations and increased tax returns). Potential timetables show a trip from Columbus to Chicago taking 4 hours on a local train and 3 hours, 45 minutes on an express train. Annual ridership is projected at 2.1 million in 2020 and over 3.3 million by 2040. The system could potentially generate an annual positive operation cost ratio estimated at $5 million in 2020, and $64 million in 2040. The business plan indicates that a private operator could manage the system without annual government subsidies. The project simply makes good economic sense.
It is important to remember that Chicago is the economic engine of the Midwest, and the Columbus Region is the largest metropolitan area without high-speed passenger rail service. I am pleased to report that the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) along with the City of Columbus and City of Marysville have jointly announced that they will collectively be continuing with the necessary steps to realize the Columbus-to-Chicago high-speed passenger rail line.
Daniel Burnham was right in his proclamation to make no small plans. Allow me to add that fortune favors the bold.