Eastern Light Rail Proposal is Dying

Eastern Light Rail Proposal is Dying

by Michael Earl Patton

It’s too early to write the official obituary, but it’s clear that the proposed passenger rail corridor from downtown to Milford is dying for lack of oxygen.  And that is a loss, because the basic idea has merit and deserves better treatment than what it has been getting.  This article is about what the area might lose if the proposal does die.

The eastern rail line would use track and right-of-way that already exists.  This existing track is called the Oasis line.  The proposed passenger trains would be short, just 2 to 4 cars.  They would be diesel-powered and relatively low profile, more like a super stretched-out streetcar than an Amtrak train.  Their size is like what is often called “light rail,” although some reserve that term only for electric-powered units.  There would be no need for massive relocation of utilities; no sharing of road space with cars, busses, and trucks.  It would help remove automobile traffic from highways and Cincinnati streets.  If passengers were to take it all the way to The Banks area near downtown, they would disembark at the Riverfront Transit Center.  From there the passengers could take the streetcar, so in this way it would feed traffic to the streetcar line and help reduce its operating deficit.

The estimated construction costs depend upon how much sharing of rail line is used with the occasional freight traffic and the type of rail vehicle selected.  The range is from $340 to 382 million.  Current support for the project is from the Ohio Department of Transportation, but is ending.  More information is found at www.EasternCorridor.org, and then click on the Oasis rail transit button.

Operating costs would depend upon the frequency of service.  For a basic service of 11 trips per weekday each way (11 to downtown and 11 to Milford), the operating costs are estimated to range from $8.9 to $9.7 million, depending upon the rail vehicle chosen.  A trip the full route would take 35 minutes, including stop times at the intermediate stations.  The fare would be comparable to the current bus charges.  Per the current Metro website, the fare between downtown Cincinnati and Milford is $3.75 (routes 28 and 29X).  The time for the express bus is a few minutes longer, depending upon the time of day.

What is needed now is a governmental organization to commit to the next phase which is where actual engineering work and drawings are done.  Once a commitment is made, the organization can request assistance grants from the Federal Transit Administration.  But the FTA will not make grants without this commitment.

Benefits include improvements in travel time, savings in gasoline and parking fees, new development by the stations, and improved safety and reliability.  Over 30 years the benefit-to-cost ratio is 1.10 or higher (benefits and costs are discounted at 4% annually).  This means that for every dollar spent there would be over a dollar in benefits.

In some ways the estimated cost savings are conservative.  They do not take into account potential new development by the rail stations – such as seen in other cities – that could increase ridership which would mean more savings from gasoline and parking.  The savings do not take into account the increased usage of the streetcar and its increase in revenue.  Nor do they appear to take into account that passenger rail would reduce the need for a new highway, or at least one not as large as otherwise envisioned.

And, if gasoline prices do spike (does anyone really think that the Mid-East situation is stable for the long term?), the ridership might go way up.  There would be an alternative to the highways.

So what’s not to like?  Unfortunately, the projected savings were calculated from a “black box” computer program.  No one was able to tell me the estimated price of gasoline, vehicle miles-per-gallon, or parking costs used other than it was based on recent nation-wide data.  Nor could anyone tell me how much the next phase is estimated to cost (although a later e-mail promised that a range of costs will be provided).  They knew neither the current bus fare nor the approximate travel time.  In other words, the Eastern Corridor Rail Transit planners wanted a commitment without knowing the basis for their work so far and without estimating how much the next phase would cost.

No one could expect a commitment under these conditions.  This shows a lack of oversight from our elected government officials.  In fact, elected officials seem to be distancing themselves from this project.  The Kasich administration is cool to the idea, and Cincinnati politicians have been concentrating on the streetcar.  County commissioner Todd Portune gave some support earlier, but recently any words of support from any public officials have been drowned out by crickets.

Compared to the Cincinnati streetcar, the eastern, or Oasis light rail line seems to have much more going for it.  Yet political leaders have mostly stayed away and the local media have largely ignored it.  Even negative comments – which might draw attention to the proposal – are lacking.  I was disappointed in the recent public presentation because of the lack of hard information, which I attribute to political leadership not challenging the planners.  If the proposal does die it won’t be because the idea itself was bad.  It will be from a lack of oxygen.