In the 1950's the U.S. interstate highway system began construction. The massive public works project allowed cars and trucks to drive cross-country. For the first time travelers could enjoy marked roads and smooth highways. It also marked the beginning of the end of large scale passenger rail service. The new highway system didn't help the rail freight industry either. Now business leaders are taking another look at the advantages of moving people and goods by train. 90.3 WCPN's Mike West has the story.
Mike West: Rail supporters, government leaders and business people from around the county recently held a rail summit in Cleveland. Rail backers want to link Ohio's major cities by train. And why not, with airport security delays and runway congestion, they say it makes sense, and with track improvements trains could travel on current rails at over 100 miles an hour. That makes rail travel competitive with commuter flights. James Seney is the executive director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission. He says the state is running out of room for more roads and trains are the answer.
James Seney: The issue is capacity, not today but tomorrow. Where is the fourth lane going to go on (interstate) 71, you can't put it in there isn't room for it. So we have to create capacity down these corridors. We do that with freight rail, passenger rail airline travel, car travel and truck travel in the corridors in the corridors that connect urban centers.
MW: Seney says Cleveland will lose economic opportunity unless rail is made into a bigger part of the transportation system. In the global economy, he says "the name of the game" is getting people and goods from place to place quickly and efficiently. If businesses can't, companies will leave.
JS: If we look at Boeing moving from Seattle to Chicago, one of the reasons they moved was they had the ability to access every customer that's in their customer book in the globe from that location. If we look at BP moving from Cleveland to Chicago... There's a number of reasons for these moves by both companies but one of the reasons was the ability to access the rest of the globe from a transportation perspective.
MW: Dennis Eckart is the head of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association. He says spending more government money on rail improvements is not aimed at train buffs who want to tour the countryside. He says attitudes and perceptions toward rail need to be changed to increase government and public support.
Dennis Eckart: And when we stop thinking about how we are going to get somewhere and just realize that we have to get somewhere efficiently, effectively and timely and a cost effective way, then rail all of a sudden scores in ways that people will forget long beyond their memories of steam-powered engines that they remember from wild west movies, and it builds upon the strengths that already exist in Ohio, strong corridors, expanded rights of way already exists and it measures our ability to be adaptive as a state.
MW: Moving forward with rail expansion is challenging for a number of reasons. States and cities normally work against each other for government funds. They also fight over business opportunities, new companies. Eckart says if the region is going thrive, all major midwest cities need to do what's best for everybody, and means helping each other get better rail service and expand other transportation methods.
DE: The states that do it well are the states that break down the competitive nature amongst their cities and realize that they become more coconspirators in economic development. We can't have a vital Hopkins if we don't have a successful Akron-Canton. But those two airports are not going to prosper if you just can't get there from here. So our purpose has to be to link Akron, Canton, Youngstown and Toledo.
MW: The biggest challenge is how to pay for additional and faster trains. The 1956 congress passed the Federal Highway Act, which allowed the government to spend $25 billion to build our highways. Rail planners say they need a similar chunk of change to get their vision on track. Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs-Jones says she supports rail but it's a bad time to ask congress for money.
Stephanie Tubbs-Jones: It's a tough time with everything else going on. But it may well mean that we could feed into the whole issue of homeland security with rail service if you contemplate that some portion of our rail system may be closed down it would be great for us to have real alternatives in place. For example, to be able to go to Cleveland and Columbus or Cincinnati without getting on a highway, without getting on a plane so I think that the best argument for rail or rail improvement may be homeland security.
MW: But not everyone is a fan of spending tax money on rail.
Sam Staley: The problem is rail is a 19th century solution to a 21st century transportation problem. And so it's not very effective.
MW: Sam Staley is a spokesman for the Buckeye Institute, a taxpayer watchdog group. He says Ohio citizens continue to reject mass transit in favor of cars, and he doesn't see the trend shifting enough to justify the amount of government spending that would be needed to upgrade the rail system.
SS: Since September 11th, Amtrak's passenger rail service has only increased 17%. That's not anywhere close to want it needs to meet the criteria for keeping it solvent after 2003 which is a mandate given it by congress. So even though air travel is down were not finding that people are switching to rail or finding that people are really switching to mass transit in significant numbers, as citizens we need to be vigilant about where our taxpayers are going.
MW: Cleveland is the 17th largest economy in the country and home to 25 international companies. Rail supporters insist the region's economy will run out of steam if rail isn't included in growth decision that are being made right now. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3 WCPN News.