A plan to create high-speed passenger rail service between Chicago and Columbus via Lima and Kenton is picking up steam, but organizers say the $1.3 billion project still isn't funded and is years away.
The Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association recently released a feasibility study saying the 300-mile system could create 26,800 full-time jobs and $700 million in household income along the corridor.
Railcars would travel 110 mph to 130 mph, getting travelers from Columbus to Chicago in less than four hours, according to the study. Once complete, the system could be handed off to a private operator.
"There's economic benefit, given the amount of business activity that occurs between Columbus and Chicago," said Vince Papsidero, Columbus' planning administrator. "This actually could be profitable."
Columbus would anchor the railway to the east with proposed stops Downtown and near Port Columbus. Stops also are planned in Marysville, Kenton and Lima.
Current proposals have the project being completed in 2020, but it still needs $1.3 billion to pay for construction and equipment.
The study says the potential economic returns make the line a strong candidate for federal funding and public-private partnerships. It also would seek funding from states.
The Federal Railroad Administration already has received $75 billion in requests for $10 billion in available grants for high-speed passenger rail service. Ohio Gov. John Kasich abandoned a plan by former Gov. Ted Strickland to link Columbus to Cleveland and Cincinnati via such service.
"The conventional wisdom has always been we'll get the feds to pay for it. I think that's starting to change," said Ken Prendergast, the executive director of the nonprofit group All Aboard Ohio.
Prendergast pointed to a Florida program that uses real-estate interests to subsidize passenger-rail extensions to residential developments as a possibility for the Columbus-Chicago line. He said the federal government also has a program that provides low-interest loans to buy equipment and develop new railroad facilities. The Federal Railroad Administration did not return calls seeking comment.
Local governments could chip in as well, Prendergast said, as they try to attract more young professionals who want alternative forms of transportation. Columbus has contributed about $20,000 to the proposal, Papsidero said.
Fred Lanahan, the president of the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association board, said, " When you're talking major infrastructure expenditure in terms of millions (of dollars), then probably the only players in that process would be the railroads."
Lanahan's organization, a state nonprofit group in Indiana, spearheaded the $100,000 study. He said proponents are trying to raise the $2 million needed for an environmental study before asking the federal government to help pay for an engineering plan that could cost as much as $10 million.
Lanahan said the project could be completed in 2017 if all goes well.
"We're talking about an alternative form of travel service that's going to alleviate the need for adding highway construction," he said.