Tuesday, December 14, 2010

From the Editor: Beware of the train cult in Ohio (and elsewhere)

Written by 

By William C. Vantuono, Editor

william-vantuono-web.jpg

OK, it’s December. It’s the end of the year. The Holidays are here. We’re supposed to be spreading peace on earth and good will toward men (well, people). My boys’ O-gauge electric trains are running around the Christmas tree (the steam-powered Polar Express and a Conrail mixed merchandise train pulled by an SD70MAC—the Vantuono household has no problem with shared use). Maybe I should write a column in a more positive vein. You know—be thankful you work in a growing industry, the Class I’s will continue spending big capital bucks next year, here’s to a safe and prosperous 2011, deck the halls, etc.

My previous paragraph is going to be about as positive as I can get as I write this in early December 2010. Why? For one thing, based upon what I’ve been hearing, the halls of the statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, starting with the incoming governor’s office, are being decked with poison ivy. The windows will soon have high-powered rifles, with passenger trains in their gunsights.

Unfortunately, the passenger rail enthusiast Jolene Molitoris, who spent the past few years as Director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, has left the building. Many of us know Jolene. She was a coalition builder during her tenure in the 1990s as Federal Railroad Administrator, and she’s always been an advocate for passenger trains, particularly those that run north of 79 mph.

Now, according to Ohio Gov.-elect John Kasich, Jolene Molitoris and many others in Ohio who have been working on the 3C (Cleveland- Columbus-Cincinnati) passenger rail corridor belong to a cult—specifically, a “train cult.”

Let me guess—they’re led not by Jim Jones, but by Casey Jones.

Kasich, who for whatever reason is not fond of passenger trains, and who is always quick with a quip, said proponents of passenger rail service in Ohio are part of a “train cult.” This proclamation came during a press conference announcing Jolene’s replacement at ODOT: Jerry Wray, who is actually returning to his former post.

According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Wray retired as ODOT Director in 1999. What has he been doing for the past 11 years? He’s been vice president of Flexible Pavements of Ohio, an asphalt industry lobbying association. No wonder Kasich—who wants to take the federal government’s $400 million grant for the 3C corridor and build more roads with it—appointed him.

Beam me up, Scotty. There’s no intelligent life down here. And while you’re at it, get me a case of antacid. I think I’m going to be sick.

On second thought, maybe not. Word just came in that U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood is taking Ohio’s spurned passenger rail funds (along with those of Wisconsin, whose incoming Governor, Scott Walker , is killing his state’s HrSR project), is going to redistribute the money to those existing grant recipients whose plans haven’t been derailed.

Here’s what Kasich actually said: “We’re not going to run some program that some train cult wants to support.”

Kasich made the cult remark when asked about his widely chronicled opposition to the 3C passenger rail corridor. He has said on numerous occasions that the project is “dead” when he takes office, calling it a “potential boondoggle for state government” and claiming the project “is being driven by special interests that would benefit from the train line’s construction.”

“Special interests”? Excuse me, Gov.-elect Kasich, but doesn’t your new ODOT head come from a lobbying firm? Am I missing something here?

I won’t mention that Kasich is a Republican. People might think I’m trying to influence them into believing that only Democrats support passenger rail. That’s not true, of course, and I’m not trying to influence you. There are plenty of Republicans that support passenger rail, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been seen riding Chinese high speed trains (though not in California, just yet).

“So how does it feel to be part of the train cult?” wrote Jerry Bell, a reporter for Columbus Biz Insider. “At least two people seem ready to wear the label as a badge of honor. ‘Kasich has things backwards,’ said Ken Prendergast, executive director of All Aboard Ohio, a Cleveland-based advocacy group for passenger trains and better public transit. ‘The U.S. and especially Ohio are the weirdos of the world,’ Prendergast told us, ‘when it comes to our passenger rail development or lack thereof. Feel free to use that as a quote.’

“We did.”

Bell also mentioned Jack Shaner, deputy director of the Ohio Environmental Council, “which is pro-passenger rail all the way. He gave us an assortment of quotes via email. Here’s the snappiest:

“‘Most Ohioans would call someone wanting to invest $400 million in rail infrastructure and grow 8,000 potential jobs a capitalist, not a cultist,’ said Shaner, referring to the amount of federal money earmarked for the 3C project and the indirect and spin-off jobs that could result because of it.

“He also forwarded a news release that pro-passenger rail groups issued the day before Thanksgiving. Among its claims were that Amtrak sold out the passenger trains serving its seven stations in Ohio for the holiday weekend and its ridership in the state grew 14.6% in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

“And Shaner had a parting shot for the governor-elect: ‘Don’t worry. No one’s trying to pry your cold, white-knuckled fingers away from that steering wheel. But if we want to attract new investment, slow the brain drain, and catch up with our competitors in North Carolina and elsewhere, we need to expand—not contract—our transportation options.’”

OK, enough venting (for now).

william-c.-vantuono-signatu.jpg

 

William Vantuono

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.