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Rail-y Big Deal: Ohio Man Maps The Future

Transit activist posted a map of a rail network that crisscrosses Ohio last month, spurring conversation in the Buckeye State about its future. Image: Kevin Verhoff

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He has seen the future — and it is rail.

An Ohio transit advocate was so frustrated with his state's lack of regional transit systems that has stymied economic growth and led young people to flee the state in droves he took matters into his own hands and drew a map of a statewide rail network.

Kevin Verhoff, a data analyst for an education nonprofit, moved back to the Columbus suburbs in 2017 after living in Oakland and northern New Jersey where he could hop on a train and even do work during his commute. Now he and his family are almost completely dependent on their car to get around the state, which has raised their expenses.

"A lot of problems Ohio is facing are because we built a world here that requires cars to get around," Verhoff told Streetsblog USA. "The price of admission of society here is car ownership and that’s $8,000 a year. That's not attainable for single parent or for someone holding a job down at a factory."

Verhoff decided to draw an inter-city rail map with seven train lines zigzagging 1,800 miles across the state while serving 94 stations. With trains that run 110 miles per hour, Verhoff estimated that the rail line would promise about a two hour trip between Columbus and Cincinnati and two-and-a-half hours between Cleveland and Columbus.

That's an astonishing improvement beyond what already exists. Columbus is the largest metropolitan area in the nation without passenger rail service of any kind. Cleveland has a regional transit system with 19 miles of rapid transit and 18 miles of light rail plus Amtrak connections to Chicago while Cincinnati has a streetcar that runs in a 3.6-mile loop. If you want to travel within the state without driving, you're probably taking a Greyhound or a GoBus.

The network also includes scores of local stops including the Ohio State campus and service stretching out to southeastern and northeastern Ohio, a western route through Bowling Green, Dayton, and Cincinnati, and a path along Lake Erie. The lines would continue running out of state making connections to Chicago, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Indiana, and Lexington, Kentucky — giving people opportunities from around the region to visit Ohio's historic sites and take rail to go to sporting events.

"A lot of small towns have these historic rail right-of-ways going through them," Verhoff said. "Towns have made efforts to preserve them."

Last month he posted his map online and immediately started hearing from strangers who love the idea.

"I was surprised. People said, 'This would change my life,'" Verhoff said. "The response was really positive to the line which connects Athens, Columbus, Bowling Green, and Toledo in particular and people said make it really easy for me to visit my family and open up opportunities to me and family members to get access to jobs."

Other advocates began to notice, too. All Aboard Ohio incoming Executive Director Stu Nicholson shared a link to Verhoff's proposal on LinkedIn a couple weeks ago and it garnered 115,000 views, and 1,200 likes.

"I'm absolutely blown away by Kevin's map. It's getting out exponentially," Nicholson told Streetsblog. "That sends an important message to state legislators there's an appetite for this out there and they're being foolish to ignore it."

A statewide rail network isn't a new idea by any means. Verhoff modeled his map after the Ohio Hub plan, which Nicholson worked on in 2003, promising a link between the state's three largest cities. That proposal included six to eight corridors with 10 to 12 trains per corridor per day with top speeds up to 79 miles per hour, making it competitive with driving.

It would have cost between $6 and $8 billion, and the state received $400 million from the Obama administration through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 to get the project started. But Republican John Kasich promised to kill the proposal during his gubernatorial campaign in 2010 and swiftly rejected the federal windfall after becoming governor. The feds took the money back and sent it to Florida, New York and California.

That fateful decision coincided with Ohio's struggle to rebound from the Great Recession, which it hasn't completely done, and with the steady decade-long emigration of young people leaving the Rust Belt for brighter job prospects on the coasts and in the Sun Belt.

Nicholson isn't surprised that people have been leaving and he thinks building out a rail network would give young people more of a reason to stay put.

"Millennials out there say they don't want expense of a car when it's the second biggest expense for individuals and families. And when young people travel out of state and see transit in other places and come back here they ask why we can't have that," Nicholson said. "You throw in a full throated system of local public transit and inter-city passenger rail suddenly you open up that game hugely for people who are looking for jobs and for those out there looking to hire."

Nicholson and Verhoff acknowledge that getting the Republican-controlled legislature to fund any alternatives to highways is an uphill battle. But in March a coalition of transit advocates were able to convince state lawmakers to boost Ohio's public transportation budget from $38 million to $70 million

"We finally made an impression that legislators whether they like rail or not they understand that public transportation is extremely important, for people who need it and for businesses and companies looking at relocating in Ohio," Nicholson said. The legislature has got to start recognizing the demand is out there."

Verhoff hopes the rail system also spurs development along train stations in suburban and rural areas to counteract the state's growing sprawl.

"There are a lot of opportunities if you’re developing property around station you’re creating real estate and creating tax bases and funding streams for cities," he said. "A lot of stops along the way are in Rust Belt towns that have space and need, so that's something to boost each city a little bit."

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