What can Ohio’s failed high-speed rail program teach us about America’s standing in the world?

When Governor John Kasich (R) gave away $400 million intended to start passenger rail service along what is known as the 3C Corridor, it spelled the end of Ohio’s high-speed rail aspirations for the foreseeable future.

While those aspirations were well intentioned, they were also quite modest. Initial service would have had trains traveling at top speeds of 79 miles-per-hour between Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. In an effort to keep upfront capital costs low, simple stations were also proposed along the corridor’s length.

In a city like Cincinnati, which boasts one of the grandest passenger rail stations in the United States, the 3C Corridor proposal left Union Terminal off the map in order to avoid the costly approach into the station through the congested Queensgate rail yard.

Cincinnati’s famous Union Terminal serves light Amtrak service and museum-goers today. Photograph by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy.

America used to build big things. Ohio used to build big things. This, it appears, is no longer the case, and it makes one wonder if the United States is even capable of building inspirational and useful structures like the Miami and Erie Canal, Union Terminal, or Interstate Highway System again.

The fall from grace may not be as noticeable if it were not for the exact opposite trends playing out across Asia, where the economic scale is tipping.

Hong Kong’s $1.3 billion West Kowloon Terminus Station will serve as a dramatic entryway into the global city from mainland China. Renderings provided by Aedas.

In contrast to the modest, and failed, 3C Corridor, leaders in Hong Kong will soon realize an extension of China’s high-speed rail network into the heart of their city. A 16-mile link will be built from Hong Kong’s Kowloon district to the region’s border with Shenzhen.

Most notable is that the entire 16-mile, $8.6 billion stretch will be underground and terminate in what will become the world’s largest underground high-speed rail station. It is a critical link that will open up those on the mainland to Hong Kong via the entire 87-mile-long Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Link.

Passengers arriving in Hong Kong will not only be treated to a center city arrival at 124 miles-per-hour, but also an arrival to a truly inspirational structure meant to not only provide a critical service, but awe those exposed to it. The investments will halve the amount of time it takes to travel between Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and will be completed in 2015.

America has also been an inspirational place for people around the world, and America has always built and done things that inspire us all. It appears that current policy makers may be content with resting on those past successes instead of investing in the country’s future, and ushering the United States into another generation of global leadership.

  • jasomm

    NYC is spending about $14 billion on subway extensions and stations, California is planning ~$70Billion in High Speed Rail, Chicago to Kalamazoo is 110+ mph… This country just has 50 years of modern transit infrastructure to catch up on. If we build the regional rail systems, the intercity systems will follow. we are on the right track. 33+ cities around the country are planning or building street car systems, or building / expanding regional rail systems.

    •  The NYC rail building projects are inspirational like the Hoover Dam, Interstate Highway System, Miami and Erie Canal or the original NYC subway system. The only thing moderately close to being inspirational in NYC’s rail building efforts is the construction of the new $2 billion PATH Station.

      If California or the Midwest’s high-speed rail aspirations ever come to fruition, then those in fact will be game changers. But the current gridlock surrounding both programs only further emphasizes my point that America seems unable to get these kinds of things done today.

      Don’t get me wrong, I love streetcars and light rail systems, but they are not close to comparable to mega building projects that inspire people all over the world. For example, do you think Yonhap News is writing stories about Atlanta’s streetcar project or Salt Lake City’s aggressive regional rail program?

      Heck, the proliferation of light rail/streetcar systems throughout the U.S. is directly correlated to my argument. These cities either didn’t want, or were unable to convince the public, that a greater investment in grade-separated heavy rail was worth it. And in many cases, not only are we not getting light rail instead of a superior heavy rail system, but now we’re getting enhanced bus service instead of light rail.

    • jasomm

       No, you’re right, and I completely agree with you. I guess I am just thinking the stance of  ‘Look how much the US sucks compared to that country’ doesn’t lead to inspirational mega-projects as well as saying, ‘look what we’ve done so far, look what they’re doing over there, lets take it to the next level.’
      It’s probably more of an issue when political figures voice those assessments than news outlets, since one reports the differences, and the advocates policy, but both sources dissolve into the ether.

    • I agree with you too…that’s why I didn’t come out and say something like that. My point is to highlight that the current political stalemate we’re in is preventing us from moving forward, and building for the future the way we once had. This timid political period needs to come to an end.

    • jasomm

       I didnt mean to turn this into a big thing, but I dont think that is an accurate synopsis of the article.

    • No big deal. I’m happy to get the feedback, but my intention was to highlight the fact that America isn’t building these kinds of things anymore. Instead of the world looking to the United States in awe of what we can accomplish, the world is now looking towards Asia.

      There are obvious differences that can explain the difference in scale between things happening in China and the United States, but it appears as though politicians here are simply trying to cut costs rather than supporting the best possible product for its citizens. This was not always the case, and I would like to see that change.

    • jasomm

      here here!

    • I think Colorado and Portland have done a good job regionally with rail, but those are progressive regions. Like everything, rail tends to get shot down in the Midwest once you get out of the democratic cities and into the suburbs, except for Chicago and Minneapolis where there are more democratic suburbs. It might be politically doable to run something up 75, but I don’t think it’ll ever happen in the western or eastern suburbs.

    • I wouldn’t call Charlotte, Houston, Salt Lake City, Dallas, or Phoenix “progressive regions’ yet they are all pushing forward with regional rail programs of their own. Salt Lake City’s is perhaps the most impressive and unexpected of the group.

    • The 110+ mph Chicago to Kalamazoo line has to defer to freight traffic and can take up to two hours sometimes. It’s still much easier to take Megabus or just drive around the lake. Streetcars are cute and will help OTR, but Cincinnati will not be a true big city until it has heavy/commuter rail.

    • nevilleross

      I’m sorry, but I don’t thank that Cincinnati needs subways like you think that they do

  • It teaches us that outside of the Northeast and Chicago, the Interstate Highway System is obviously still the preferred method of transportation between cities. Other countries don’t have the extensive highway system we have or the minimal gas tax funding for transit. Cincinnati and other metropolitan areas should pursue commuter rail. Once people see that they can get to work without having to fight traffic and congestion on 75/71, maybe they’ll be more open to taking rail to Dayton, Indianapolis, Chicago, etc.

    • I disagree with the statement that it shows us that “the Interstate Highway System is obviously still the preferred method of transportation between cities.” You could make that statement, but it’s easy to be the most preferred when you’re the only option.

  • Randy, the Miami-Erie canal was built by the State of Ohio and construction of the Interstate Highway System was funded by a redirection of the existing Federal gasoline tax into a trust fund that was then divided according to a formula between the various state DOT’s.  Union Terminal, by contrast, was built almost entirely with private money.  I have never seen a comprehensive breakdown, but it appears that only about 10% of CUT’s capital expense was public, with much of that being the city’s donation of Lincoln Park as the terminal’s construction site and the establishment of a “replacement park” by the Park Board immediately south (this park was sold to commercial interests when the West End was bulldozed).  The city also paid about 1/4 of the cost of The Western Hills Viaduct, and because 8th St. was a state route, Ohio rebuilt the 8th St. Viaduct to permit the terminal’s elevated approaches from the C&O and Southern bridges.   Union Terminal did not become a public building until the 1970s, after passenger rail service ceased. 

  • Zachary Schunn

    Regarding our current political stalemate:

    If you believe that history repeats itself then we are in much the same situation as happened in the 30’s.  Yes, FDR imposed radical changes in his first term, but there was plenty of push-back from debt/spending alarmists in the mid-30’s that prevented us from quickly recovering.  It took until WWII in the early 40’s for true growth to really force us out of the depression.  In fact, though the interstate system was tied to FDR, he was unable to push it forward and it took until 1956 to get approved.
    If you believe, as I do, that urban development will pull us out of this recession similarly to how suburban development helped pull us out of the Great Depression, then we are already on a strong trajectory.  But we are in a political battle now between growth-based policies and deficit-reduction policies, and unfortunately most in this country don’t seem to see that those two can go hand in hand.  (I read too much Paul Krugman, can you tell?)

    We need economists setting economic policy, not politicians setting economic policy.  If we go the route of austerity, we may be in for the same troubles Europe has placed themselves in.  If we pursue growth, we can increase revenues in the long-term, cut recession-related expenses (for ex. costs of welfare and unemployment), and manage our deficit.

    With history as a guide, I think growth will take us out of this recession, but it will take another shock for everyone to realize that Tea Party politics does NOT stimulate the economy.  It could be an economic shock, political shock (with so many moderates moving away from the Republican Party don’t be surprised if we’ve seen the last of the Reagan-Republican political era), environmental shock, something.  But something will pull us out of this.

    I’d love to see real rail projects underway–all the cards are lining up against the gas-based auto right now–but it takes visionary political leaders to push those forward.  Mallory is a visionary; Kasich is not.

    I’m hoping in 3-5 years time we’ll all think it crazy we were arguing over light rail, green tech., and other no-brainer growth policies that could be boons for our country the way they are in Germany (until recently), China, or Brazil.  But… we’ll see.

    • Zachary Schunn

      ^By the way, I didn’t mean for that post to sound like a pro-stimulus rant.  Growth can come from the public sector, private sector, or both.  Part of our economic problems now is tied to $2T sitting in corporate bank accounts–many oversees–NOT being used to stimulate growth of those companies in our country.  Corporate spending is now occurring in China, India, and other places, but not here.

      But look at local successes like 3CDC.  We can leverage public dollars to attract private investment.  It happens; it works.

      On the flip side, the notion that cutting spending will grow the economy, when by definition our economy (GDP) IS spending, is ludicrous.

      Alright, end rant.  I know I got a little off topic but I think it all ties together.

  • Thank heaven for Governor Kasich.  The so-called ‘high speed’ snail-rail boondoggle was destined to be a failure no matter what.  He simply got us there without the senseless waste of $400 million plus.

    Zach calls it  a stalemate.  It’s not that at all.  The right side won, and the wrong side lost.

    • You can say it was “destined to be a failure” all you want, but that doesn’t make it true. All Kasich did was reject the federal funding so that it could go to another state and be used to build a high speed rail line elsewhere. As gas prices continue to rise, Ohioans will feel the pain while states with high speed rail will have an alternative that’s cheaper, more convenient, and more environmentally friendly.

    • Zachary Schunn

      Wow, did COAST finally just admit they LOST?

      The “boondoggle” Fountain Square is now packed throughout the week, the “boondoggle” Banks project is a smashing success, the “boondoggle” Washington Park is about to open to much fanfare, and the “boondoggle” and “failed” streetcar project is now under construction after being supported by voters in TWO elections.

      As for the high-speed train (hey, I consider 14 mph faster than interstate speeds high-speed), it’ll be back in 2014.  At the latest.

      (And on a side note:  why in politics do we always have to make it one side vs. the other?  It’s not right vs. wrong, left vs. right.  It’s about pro-growth policies, which USED to be something everyone could get on board with.  But we seemed to have reach a point where people would rather see their “enemy” fail than the country succeed.)

  • I don’t think it’s so much that Americans can’t build inspirational structures as much as we just can’t afford to charge it on our Chinese Visa card anymore. With the debt this country is in we’re going to have to take some *serious* austerity measures and, just like in Greece, they’re going to be extremely unpopular. We do have rail here as we’re an Amtrack stop, as you briefly mentioned. As you know, the 3C line would have just connected us to Cleveland and Columbus. Who cares? We’re already connected to Indianpolis, Chicago, and everything worth seeing on the east coast. In fact, I plan to fly into Boston and ride the Amtrack back to Cincinnati, stopping in Philadephia and seeing Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Why isn’t the existing Amtrack line advertised more around here? No one talks about it. I don’t care that we didn’t get the 3C rail line as much as I care about the money going to California. A local light rail system would be far more effective for this city than the 3C line anyway.

    • The current Amtrak routes serving Cincinnati are so limited that it’s not a real transit option for most passengers. I believe passenger trains only stop at Union Terminal three days a week at around 1:30 a.m. each day. We should not be satisfied with this. We should be pushing for increased frequency, more convenient times, and higher speeds that can be achieved with rail infrastructure improvements.

      You shouldn’t write off the 3C corridor plan because it “only” connected Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, and Cleveland. Not every interstate highway connects every city you need to visit, but when you look at the network as a whole, you can easily get where you need. Likewise, the 3C corridor would have connected to other corridors and eventually provided high-speed service to the other cities you mentioned.

  • joe

    The United States used to be able to build things, but that was before our cradle to grave mentality and government spending started speed balling out of control. We simple can’t always afford to build great things, when we are already borrowing large sums of money just to pay for everything else our government has promised our citizens. 

    Hong Kong, noted above, is one of the free-est economies in the world. Low taxes, free trade, and very well off   income for its residents. Very high ease of doing business. All of this in an extremely dense urban area. Very different from what we see in New York.

    I think the there is some truth in the fact that HK can “afford” to spend on big projects that they deem important, because they have more “available/un-claimed” resources to do so.

    In a capitalist society, and in a state such as Ohio which has a limited amount of money, we have choices to make as citizens to what we want from our state. If we are to spend such and such amount on construction, and then an annual amount to operate and maintain, that money has got to come from somewhere. That is where we make choices, is A more important than B or C. 

    It would be great if we could just build everything we wanted and never had to worry about the costs associated with it, but that’s not how the world works.

    • This is just hyper nonsense. Cradle to grave mentality? Not even close. If you want to know where American money is going and why we have so much debt, look no further than defense. The US spends as much on defense as the rest of the world does. And while the rest of the world builds infrastructure that makes their lives better, we have bridges collapsing and roads buckling. Hopefully, Americans will wake up some day and see the primrose path they have been encouraged to follow.

  • Fern Gray

    Just Googled “why didn’t Ohio get a train?” – interested due to the recent “hyperloop” story. My family lives in between Cleveland and Columbus… our community is deteriorating – with no prospects of jobs (other than service industry- minimum wage jobs). This train actually brought hope to the college grads who wanted to stay in their communities! I would LOVE to give up my car to be able to commute to the city and work! I hope that this idea makes it across the Governor’s desk again

    • It definitely won’t be on this governor’s desk again. Kasich has been extremely anti-rail and anti-transit, and appointed a former asphalt lobbyist as head of the Ohio Department of Transportation. Maybe once Kasich is out of office…

    • Fern Gray

      I am quietly praying that Kasich will get his walking papers! Mass transit could save our community! They just released our local unemployment rate which is hanging around the 10% mark. That is sad! Ohio royally screwed up by putting all their “eggs” in the manufacturing basket! AND YES… his asphalt buddy expanded our major highway (71) to three lanes… a billion dollar price tag- ouch! I also know the gas companies cannot stand the thought of us giving up our cars!

  • Fern Gray

    Does anybody know how much the 71 expansion cost the taxpayers?

  • blues90

    I just saw this and as a former Clevelander, now living 100 miles east of San Francisco, I can say in the most general sense that the richer Americans are, the more they hate public transit. The rich hate the poor, as a constant reminder of the shortcomings of a totally profit-based system, because capitalists are closer to hunter-gatherer in nature than agrarians, and civilization is dependent on agriculture, husbandry, trade and stability – not profit per se. Any diversion of the much-hated tax dollars toward a benefit to those generating the least profit is a burr under the saddle of capitalists. The rich never ride trains or public transit in any meaningful way. I come in contact with many high-level executives and wealthy businessmen due to my career path, and most (not all) have nothing but an amused disdain for anything that makes life better for the lower classes at their expense. They simply won’t hear of it.
    I extensively documented the demise of the Cleveland Union Terminal as soon as I had the means to get there with a good camera, and spent a little time at the Cinci station too, having seen it operating in 1966. I rode the Erie-Lackawanna commuter train from Hiram college to Cleveland when I could. I have two reels of 16mm motion picture film from the cab of the engine. I saw the last B&O passenger trains in Ravenna in the frozen dawn hours before Amtrak. I spent evenings in the signal tower there too, with the Armstrong levers and mechanical linkage to the tracks. I know how much good work was brought to ruin by neglect, taxes, profit over culture, and the selfishness of the car economy.
    We have Amtrak trains and streetcars in Sacramento, and of course BART in the Bay Area, and they are patronized, if variably, by fairly large numbers of riders. I don’t know why Ohioans hate trains, but Ohioans HATE passenger trains. They just do. They sneer at them. They get stuck without snow tires by the Cleveland airport in a blizzard, and refuse to take the rapid transit. They are fiercely independent, and love their cars. That’s why I left. I hope it changes someday, but the urban areas will have to expand and grow in population to drive it, and the wealthier Ohioans always move to the exurbs and sneer at those left behind. I was way over it long before I left, over 25 years ago.