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Joe Guillen
By Joe Guillen November 24, 2010

ODOT cites heightened Amtrak ridership in light of potential program cuts

Republican Gov.-elect John Kasich has made it clear he will cancel Ohio’s $400 million passenger train project when he takes office in January. Gov. Ted Strickland, who lost to Kasich earlier this month and strongly supported the project, denied Kasich’s recent request to halt spending on environmental and engineering studies related to it that already has topped $1 million.

Advocates for the project, which would use federal stimulus money to establish a Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati train line, remain hopeful Kasich will change his mind. While Kasich views the 3C rail corridor as a waste of money, supporters say it will create jobs and meet a growing demand for passenger train service.

The Ohio Department of Transportation issued a news release on Oct. 25 touting the increasing desire among Ohioans to travel by train. The department said "demand for transportation choice is on the rise, with 14 percent more Ohioans riding passenger trains over the past year."

ODOT, under the leadership of Strickland appointee Jolene Molitoris, is overseeing the $400 million rail project. Department spokesman Scott Varner said the increasing demand for passenger rail "adds to the viability of the 3C. It shows there is a ridership demand."

Even though Kasich seems determined to kill the train project, we decided to look into Ohioans’ supposedly increasing appetite for train travel. If accurate, it would be a worthy factoid for rail advocates to put before Kasich.

Amtrak is the only passenger rail operator in the state, according to the Ohio Rail Development Commission, so passengers on its trains would fully account for ridership in Ohio. To measure ridership, Amtrak counted the number of passengers who boarded a train or got off a train at one of Ohio’s seven Amtrak train stations.

The counting method exposes Amtrak to some level of duplication. If a passenger is traveling within the state – from Cleveland to Sandusky, for example -- he would be counted twice: once when he boards the train in Cleveland and again when he gets off in Sandusky. Spokesman Marc Magliari said Amtrak would not release statistics of intercity travel in Ohio because the information is considered proprietary. But he said such travel is rare. "Most people aren’t going from Elyria to Bryan," Magliari said.

According to Amtrak, there were 128,174 passengers whose train ride began or ended at an Ohio train station in the 2009 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30. There were 146,861 such passengers in the 2010 fiscal year. That’s a 14.6 percent increase.

The Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation regularly audits Amtrak’s operations. Three such audits have been initiated so far this year. However, the Inspector General’s office could not say whether or not Amtrak’s ridership figures are accurate.

"We do not have any information that would lend to us having a response," David Wonnenberg, of the Inspector General’s office, said in an e-mail. "We have not issued an audit report in which these or similar questions came up."

Amtrak confirmed the figures on which ODOT relied to boast about Ohio’s spike in passenger rail ridership. The railroad’s method of counting passengers does leave some room for inflation. But since the same counting method was used in 2009 and 2010, such increases would occur in both years so the impact on the data would be consistent.

We rate the statement True.

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ODOT cites heightened Amtrak ridership in light of potential program cuts

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