Soon after he was elected, Ohio Gov. John Kasich did something very smart for Buckeye State residents. He told federal officials the state did not want $385 million in ''stimulus'' money to start a so-called high-speed rail line.
But there is still a great opportunity for the state, and especially the Mahoning Valley, to prosper by investing in freight rail. Recent events provide evidence of the opportunity, and upcoming events should serve as a catalyst to convince state leaders to devote more time and money to freight rail.
Let's hope that the high-speed passenger rail push is finished.
California legislators voted recently to sell $4.5 billion in bonds to begin work on a Los Angeles to San Francisco passenger rail line. That allows the state to get $3.2 billion in federal funds - including, incidentally, money once meant for Ohio.
The total, $7.7 billion, certainly sounds like it ought to fund an impressive high-speed rail project. Actually, no. The final cost of the line is estimated at $68 billion.
On top of that, high-speed rail doesn't pay for itself. So in addition to large tax increases to build it, large tax increases also will be needed to maintain it. Better that this disaster is unfolding in California rather than Ohio.
In Ohio, the Genesee & Wyoming Railroad recently purchased Rail America for a bit more than $1 billion. That bodes well for Trumbull and Mahoning counties because many of the rail lines are right here alongside industrial sites. Genesee & Wyoming obviously see growth potential and, unlike passenger rail, is willing to pony up private funding. Economic development officials see this as a precursor to local industries cutting expenses and expanding, and other industries locating or relocating to the Valley.
There are many reasons for the state to assist freight rail development. Every train car on the rail line, which is maintained by private companies, means three less trucks on highways, which are maintained by taxpayers.
Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jerry Wray is putting pressure on Ohio's regional transportation councils to spend federal money that they have been hoarding. Locally, The Eastgate Development and Transportation Agency, which serves Trumbull and Mahoning counties, has on average started every year since 2008 with $9.2 million in federal money and ended with $11.4 million. Only one other agency in Ohio uses a smaller percentage of its allotted federal money.
An aggressive spend-down should ease ODOT's budget problems and enable the state to invest more in rail projects. Regulations make it difficult to use EDATA's federal money on rail projects.
The Western Reserve Port Authority has identified five rail projects that could boost economic development. The Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber frequently fields questions about rail access for companies looking for new locations. The oil and natural gas industry, about to blossom in Trumbull and Mahoning, relies heavily on freight rail. All this makes it wise to invest in rail.
Local economic development officials should continue pushing state support for rail projects. They should attend the logistics conference in Akron this month and the Ohio Conference on Freight in Sandusky next month to continue advocating the restoration of freight rail.