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Could Ohio replicate Florida's high-speed rail system?

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    A Brightline passenger train departs the Fort Lauderdale, Fla. station on March 26, 2018.

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    A Brightline train awaits departure March 28, 2018 from the West Palm Beach station, which has architectural cues matching those of the much larger MiamiCentral terminal complex.

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    A view of the Brightline command center in Miami, Fla. on March 27, 2018. While Florida East Coast Railway dispatches trains on the tracks Brightline uses, a Brightline employee in this center can monitor their progress and communicate with FEC if necessary as well as provide information to other Brightline employees. The facility also displays security camera views from Brightline stations.

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    Gavin MacArthur, 8, of Pembroke Pines, Fla. chooses a cookie from a snack tray offered by Brightline train attendant Jose Garcia during a trip from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach, Fla. on March 28.

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    Brightline stations feature dual snack bars -- one for self-service, the other staffed by an attendant. West Palm Beach, Florida on March 28.

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    Interior view of a Brightline "Smart" coach on March 28. Ridership on the initial runs between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach has been far below capacity, but Brightline leaders say it has exceeded expectations and will grow rapidly once service to Miami begins. THE BLADE/DAVID PATCH

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    Motorists in backed-up traffic disregard a Do Not Stop on Tracks sign in Aventura, Fla. along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks that Brightline trains to and from Miami will begin using later this year. THE BLADE/DAVID PATCH

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MIAMI — A little more than 35 years ago, Ohio voters shot down a Toledo legislator’s dream when they defeated a referendum for a penny increase in the state sales tax to pay for development of a high-speed rail program in the state.

Art Wilkowski, a liberal Democrat who represented Toledo in the Ohio House of Representatives for 14 years, believed fast trains could help wean Ohioans from dependence on cars and pricey foreign oil to fuel them.

Republican critics said such a project would cost too much and derisively nicknamed Mr. Wilkowski “Choo Choo” for his fervor. He retired from the legislature in 1983, the year after the sales-tax proposal failed.

RELATED: Brightline skeptics worry about safety, environment in FloridaBrightline train looks to revive intercity rail travel

Subsequent plans and proposals notwithstanding, Ohio today appears no closer to hosting anything more than the skeletal passenger-train service it had during the mid-1970s when Mr. Wilkowski, who died in 1999, took up that cause.

But train advocates hope the new rail-development model advanced in Florida by the company now known as Brightline could inform future efforts to develop rail services involving the Buckeye state.

“Brightline takes us back to the past in some ways … [to] the notion that transportation and real estate go hand-in-hand,” said Ken Prendergast, chief executive officer of All Aboard Ohio, a train-advocacy group. “It has changed the dialogue about how passenger rail in this country should be going forward.”

The Brightline model, however, relies on the passenger-train operator either owning or having assured access to the tracks over which it operates, as well as real estate to market.

Florida East Coast Industries had both of those attributes when it set up a subsidiary, All Aboard Florida, that now goes by the Brightline trade name.

At the time of All Aboard Florida’s creation, FECI and Florida East Coast Railway, which owns most of the route between Miami and Orlando over which Brightline trains are planned to operate, both belonged to Fortress Investment Group. The exception is a 40-mile stretch west of Cocoa, Fla., that Brightline plans to build for itself on right of way for which the state of Florida granted a 99-year lease.

While Fortress has since sold Florida East Coast Railway to Grupo Mexico, a large Mexican industrial conglomerate, All Aboard Florida/Brightline retained access and owns the additional track it paid for to support the passenger trains’ operation over what had been, since the late 1960s, a freight-only railroad.

Brightline trains began running in January between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and operational testing is under way for service to Miami expected to start within weeks.

No date has been set for service to start between West Palm Beach and Orlando, but with construction having yet to start, it is at least several years away and is subject to a federal lawsuit from opponents in several counties along the Florida coast north of West Palm Beach.

Before this year, Florida’s recent passenger-train service was limited to long-distance Amtrak trains between New York, Tampa, and Miami; the Auto Train between the Orlando area and northern Virginia, and commuter trains between Miami and West Palm Beach and in metro Orlando.

In Ohio, two pairs of Amtrak trains plod across the state’s northern tier each night on routes between Chicago and the East Coast, while a third route running three times per week each way has stops in Hamilton and Cincinnati on its often scenic, but slow and circuitous, trips along the Ohio River and through the West Virginia mountains.

Ohio’s most recent attempt to expand passenger rail in the state beyond those existing corridors would have involved using tracks owned by CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern, the two largest private freight railroad systems in the eastern United States, to link Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati.

Under Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, Ohio in 2010 obtained $400 million in federal funding for capital outlays associated with that project, including track, signal, and station construction as well as the purchase of trains.

While critics said the 6½-hour proposed schedule for the 255-mile run, including several station stops, meant the trains would be uncompetitively slow, rail advocates said the route would serve as a starting point for a network of train routes throughout the state for which speeds could increase incrementally as funding and technology allowed.

But when Gov. John Kasich took office the following year, one of his first executive actions was to send the $400 million back to Washington — just as Florida Gov. Rick Scott did with a similar grant to pay for new government-sponsored intercity trains between Miami and Tampa via Orlando.

Mr. Kasich and Mr. Scott, both Republicans, declared that their states’ obligations to subsidize the trains’ operating costs once they started couldn’t be justified.

Patrick Goddard, Brightline’s chief operating officer, said decades of studies showing popular demand for better trains motivated Florida East Coast to start its project after the state-sponsored plan derailed.

South Florida “has a major capacity problem” driven by its population growth and its geographic confinement between the Atlantic Ocean and the Everglades, he said.

“There’s nowhere to go, and no room for more roads,” Mr. Goddard said.

Based on cell-phone data, he said, 500 million trips are made annually between South Florida and Orlando, so “if we can take 2, 3, 4, 5 percent off the roads, it will make a meaningful difference.”

While Brightline is focused on “proof of concept” in South Florida, the potential exists for similar rail development in “any city pairs that are too far to drive and too short to fly,” Mr. Goddard said.

He cited Texas and the Atlanta-Charlotte corridor as places Brightline has contemplated, along with an eventual extension of the Miami-Orlando route to Tampa.

“Obviously here [Miami-Orlando] we have a shorter putt, because we already owned the right of way,” Mr. Goddard said.

But in other corridors, he said, “there’s the possibility for government to intercede for mobility in the region.

“It’s a relatively complex environment out there,” he said, but from discussions Brightline has had, “there’s a high level of interest.”

While nobody in Ohio is proposing huge office towers near train stations, Mr. Prendergast said there have been the beginnings of transit-oriented development in several cities that should encourage belief that trains and real estate can grow symbiotically here as well as in Florida.

Some “pretty remarkable development” is occurring near a bus rapid-transit corridor in Columbus, he noted in particular, as well as near the HealthLine busway and the Blue Line rail transit station in Shaker Heights.

Ohio’s Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati corridor was part of a broader “Ohio Hub plan” the Ohio Rail Development Commission issued in 2002 and revised in 2007 that envisioned it as part of a network of trains — starting with a 79-mph top speed but eventually running at higher speeds — linking all of Ohio’s major cities along with Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Toronto via Buffalo.

Its startup as that plan’s first stage also was envisioned in a broader state “rail plan” the agency issued in 2010. ORDC is soliciting public comments for a 2020 update to that plan, but the state has no funds budgeted for passenger-train startup projects.

Michigan is farther along with passenger-rail improvements.

In 2012 the Michigan Department of Transportation bought from Norfolk Southern the tracks between Kalamazoo and Ypsilanti, Mich., that Amtrak used as part of its Detroit-Chicago route.

Since then, it has spent $347 million in federal grants for track, signal, and safety upgrades intended to allow 110-mph train speeds on that segment that are expected to begin in sections later this year.

MDOT previously arranged for similar work on the track between Kalamazoo and Porter, Ind., that Amtrak itself already owned and already has a 110-mph top speed. Separate federally supported projects have added track capacity along the congested rail corridor west of Porter that all of Amtrak’s Michigan and northern Ohio trains use and provided a bridge on Chicago’s south side to replace an at-grade crossing of that corridor with a busy commuter rail line.

Amtrak operates three round trips per day between Chicago and Pontiac, Mich., via Detroit, plus daily roundtrips on routes to Grand Rapids and Port Huron.

Mr. Prendergast said the strongest possibilities for passenger-rail development in Ohio relate to two proposed corridors: Columbus-Fort Wayne-Chicago and Cleveland-Toledo-Detroit.

The former could come into focus if CSX Transportation, which has been on a cost-cutting binge over the past year and has stated an interest in selling off marginal routes, could be persuaded to sell necessary track for such a service, he said.

The latter, Mr. Prendergast said, could be developed as an extension of Michigan’s ongoing project.

CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Canadian National have roughly parallel routes between metro Detroit and Toledo, so if some form of consolidation could be arranged in that corridor, one line could become available for passenger trains, he proposed.

Between Toledo and Cleveland, however, a new corridor specific for passenger trains is likely to be needed for any higher-speed operations, because the existing main line owned by Norfolk Southern is a heavy freight-train route. Mr. Prendergast said that might be an opportunity for the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission to get involved, “now that it has the legal authority to do things other than highways along the highway corridor.

“The fact the the Ohio Turnpike Commission is no longer just the turnpike commission, I consider an opportunity,” he said.

Norfolk Southern declined to comment for this story. A CSX statement was not specific to any proposed rail corridors in Ohio.

“CSX hosts more passenger trains on its network than any other Class I railroad in the eastern United States, and we have a long history of working well with our passenger rail partners,” spokesman Katie Chimelewski said in an emailed statement. “Our participation in any passenger rail initiative is threefold: ensuring the safety of our employees and the public; maintaining sufficient capacity to serve current and future customers; and protecting the company’s shareholders. These are the principles to which we adhere when considering any such proposal.”

Mr. Prendergast said Ohioans should not rely on Amtrak to push fast-train development in the state, because it “only reacts in response” to others’ initiatives. But Ohio could respond to a private-sector initiative like Florida did when it added hundreds of millions in supplemental projects related to the Brightline project, he said.

“If they, or someone like Brightline, came in with a similar message, I think it would resonate,” Mr. Prendergast said.

Contact David Patch at dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.

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