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Talking Headways Podcast: Amtrak vs. Brightline in Ohio

Cleveland journalist Ken Prendergast on intercity passenger rail in greater Ohio and the competing interests of Brightline and Amtrak.

This week we’re joined by Cleveland journalist Ken Prendergast to talk about intercity passenger rail in greater Ohio. We chat about the competing interests of Brightline and Amtrak and the history of passenger rail planning in the region.

Scroll down for a partial transcript of our conversation, or click here for an unedited, AI-generated transcript. Listen here:

Jeff Wood: You mentioned Florida earlier and the Brightline line there, and now it goes all the way to Orlando. They're also kicking off construction for a line between Southern California and Las Vegas. It's an interesting kind of model that they're pursuing — from the standpoint of, you know, at that time when the kickoff happened, the CEO of Brightline was talking about other potential future applications of this model mentioned Ohio.

Ken Prendergast: Yeah. "Of all the gin joints and all the world," they mention Ohio. You know, he was going through the list. He's like, well, you know, in the south, we'll look at Texas, and in the West, we'll look at Seattle to Portland, and in the Midwest, we look at Columbus and Cleveland and whatnot.

Jeff Wood: And "whatnot."

Ken Prendergast: Yeah, "whatnot." So we'll see what whatnot is. And actually we're gonna find out a lot about this in the next 12 to 24 months because that's when a lot of these service development plans that the Federal Railroad Administration just funded are going to produce some data. There were 24 of these service development plans funded around the country, including a number of them here in Ohio — Cleveland to Detroit, Cleveland-Columbus-Dayton-Cincinnati, Cincinnati-Chicago, Chicago-Columbus — I believe on to Pittsburgh. So all of these were funded, and this is gonna be a shopping list for Brightline. They're gonna look at all of these things, not just from Ohio, but from around the country and decide which one they want to invest in.

And this is where we're gonna start to see governors around the country start to put together pitches to Brightline and put their best foot forward and maybe some enticements financially to get them to come. And that's how business is done — rather than waiting for these states to step up and go buy service from Amtrak, which is how Amtrak does things. Instead it's gonna be a competition.

Jeff Wood: That business point is really interesting too, because of another piece of the article you wrote, specifically around basically the owner, or the majority stakeholder, in the Milwaukee Bucks — Wes Edens, who is the head of Brightline. The Haslam Sports Group, which owns the Cleveland Browns, is starting to think about a new stadium and thinking about an entertainment district — like apparently all sports magnates are thinking about these days. But the interesting part of that too is that they can also lobby each other, they can lobby the governors, they can lobby the states, you know, legislators and things like that, which Amtrak can't do. Is that an unfair advantage? Or is that, like you said, just how business works and so that's gonna be what happens?

Ken Prendergast: Yeah, it's unfair to Amtrak, but Amtrak is the creature of its own laws. And Amtrak tends to zealously defend its originating legislation, including things like that they don't pay market rates to freight railroads to use their tracks. They use what's called incremental costs — the added additional cost of adding one more train to that line. So, you know, if they paid market rates, for example, I suspect they would have more freight railroads saying, yeah, come on in, we'd love to have you on — and this whole train that we also bring in from the electric utility and over here from the intermodal company that wants to run more truck trailers, bring it on.

They don't care what's in those trains as long as it pays them what they believe is fair market value for the use of their tracks. So when Amtrak goes to their federal law that created them, they tend to pick out the things obviously that they like and defend those. And those that they don't, they tend to try and change and for whatever reason, you know, the lobbying aspect is one that they keep. Ohio is a pay-to-play state. It unfortunately has a great deal of corruption and if you want to get a piece of legislation moving through the state, you've gotta pay somebody. That's how it goes. Brightline is one of those companies that lobbies and they have lobbying firms that work for them pay money to campaigns. That's how things get done in Florida and that's how they get done here in Ohio. Amtrak doesn't play that game.

Jeff Wood: I'm curious what you think about the transportation impacts of that lobbying and all of the major players having interests in real estate and other things. Do you think that that's good for transportation outcomes, or do you think that the outcome will always be a good one because something is, you know, put together?

Ken Prendergast: It can be. And in a way a lot of this goes back to the old Gilded Age that made Cleveland thrive. And you know, while Cleveland thrived, there was also a large portion of the population that was hurting, and that was the labor side. We had lots of labor strife back then, which ultimately caused businesses to go away because they didn't wanna be part of that tumultuous situation. We have kind of the makings of a Gilded Age situation when it comes to transportation and real estate with Brightline and possibly others that may want to imitate them, like Hertzog or First Group. They may wanna partner with real estate companies or form their own and put all this stuff together and you know, we may see like, rather than in downtown Cleveland or in downtown Cincinnati, which will be difficult for passenger trains to get into because of the infrastructure requirements, suburban stations that are built up in kind of a downtown model.

So we might see cities with multiple focal points in them. It'll be interesting to see how this all plays out. I mentioned that near Hopkins Airport, the Cleveland Browns are looking at putting their football stadium there along with all the other stuff that they want to see go around at new apartment buildings and hotels and shops and other entertainment venues. Ironically, Cleveland Hopkins Airport is right next to the Amtrak line to Columbus and Dayton and Cincinnati. You could have the trains from those cities terminate there, connect to planes, or connect to Cleveland's rail system, which was the first to link its downtown to the airport with a rapid transit line.

So you can get to downtown Cleveland on the train or to University Circle, which is our second largest employment center, or other places. It's not like you're being dropped off in the middle of nowhere. Those are some interesting things that are gonna play out here. And you know I also mentioned in my article that the owner of Brightline owns the Milwaukee Bucks. A minority owner of the Milwaukee Bucks is the Haslams, who own the Cleveland Browns. Who knows what they talk about in their meetings, but at some point, you know, the Brightline guy may say, "Look, I'm looking at the city where your football team is located, what can you tell me about where I should put a station and let the conversations begin?" So we'll see how that plays out.

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