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The Associated Press August 5, 2010, 4:20PM ET

LaHood downplays Ohio GOP attack on passenger rail

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Thursday downplayed threats by Ohio Republicans to stop a high-profile passenger rail project if they take over state government in the November election.

LaHood said the $400 million stimulus project to connect Ohio's major cities is an important part of a national rail program, similar to the development of the federal highway system, which took five decades to complete and survived numerous elections.

"The reason that Ohio is connected to an interstate system that runs all over America ... is because it was a national plan. Ohio will be connected (to rail)," LaHood said following a meeting with construction workers to talk about the impact of the federal stimulus package.

Ohio got about $1 billion in stimulus money for transportation projects, mostly for roads and bridges. But state Republicans, including gubernatorial candidate John Kasich, have attacked separate dollars for passenger rail, saying the trains will be too slow and too costly to operate.

Without directly commenting on what he would do if Kasich is elected, LaHood said elections come and go and that he expected to see Ohio included in the national rail network as it is built over 25 years.

LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, made similar comments last week in Wisconsin, where GOP gubernatorial candidates in that state have promised to stop an $810 million project to build a 110-mph rail line between Madison and Milwaukee.

Ohio's plan, one of 13 stimulus-funded rail projects in the U.S., calls for a startup service to begin in late 2012, with four trains reaching speeds of 79 mph connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati.

The 79 mph speed, while below the Federal Railroad Administration's 110 mph threshold to qualify as high-speed rail, is the top speed at which most rail systems operate in the U.S.

U.S. intercity rail has seen ridership grow in recent years. Amtrak, crediting an improving economy and high fuel prices, is on pace for record ridership this year, carrying a best-ever 13.6 million passengers in the first half of fiscal year 2010.

Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, who is in a tough re-election fight, has billed Ohio's project as something that can create hundreds of construction jobs, spark new economic development in cities with train stations and set the stage for a faster service that would eventually connect to regional hubs in Chicago and the East Coast.

Kasich stepped up his opposition at a political forum Wednesday that included local transit agencies and engineers.

"It's not going to happen when I become governor, OK?" Kasich said. "If you want that train, I hope you can get over that and vote for me anyway, but you're not going to get that train."

Kasich said the trains would have an average speed of 39 mph and that the state can't afford it.

His speed calculation, parsed from a preliminary Amtrak study last year showing a 6 1/2-hour travel time from Cleveland to Cincinnati, can be misleading without context.

For example, it counts dwell time at eight stations to allow passengers to board and ignores faster trips on shorter, intermediate routes. Actual trip times and travel schedules will be determined by a final engineering analysis due next year.

As for the cost, the Strickland administration intends to cover an estimated $17 million annual operating subsidy with federal grants for the first several years, along with revenue from train advertising and fees that restaurants, hotels and gas stations pay to advertise on blue highway exit signs.

But the administration has yet to identify a long-term funding source that doesn't rely on federal grants.

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