Columbus Looks For Passenger Depot Site

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The city of Columbus is scheduled to receive $16 million in federal stimulus money for mass transit projects. The money could be spent on a variety of things including the construction of a light rail passenger terminal. But that would still leave Columbus without a passenger depot for Governor Strickland’s planned rail corridor connecting Columbus with Cleveland and Cincinnati. Where would that train station be built? One spot could be transformed into a station fairly quickly.

“We’re looking at the northern wall of the south facility of the convention center down at the track level…”

Outside of the Columbus Convention Center, director Bill Jennison gives a tour of a secluded section next to the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

“And this is an area where, if they were to establish passenger rail service, this is one option they would have for establishing a platform downtown,” Jennison says.

Jennison says he thinks a train station at the Columbus Convention Center would be an exciting idea.

“That wall that you see there is actually the outer face of our convention center. And you could remove some of those concrete panels and gain access to the building.”

Behind those concrete panels is an empty, cinderblock room where workers are installing elevators as part of the convention center’s renovation.

“What you’ll see on this floor…this is where we have all of the retail activity: the food court, access to the hotel, there’s a taxi stand outside the Hyatt Regency so really all the amenities that the traveling public would need to get on their way once they got to Columbus would be here,” Jennison says.

The location is ironic. The convention center sits on the spot where the old Union Station once sat. Union Station was demolished in 1976 just as passenger rail service in central Ohio was dying. Historian Jeff Darbee, who wrote a history of Union Station, says the death of passenger rail service sidetracked the convention center depot.

“My guess is, had we not lost our passenger train in the fall of ’79 – that’s the train that ran between New York to Kansas City – and it served Columbus, I suspect that if it hadn’t been discontinued because of federal budget cutbacks the city and convention center may well have said, Well why don’t we do the station the way we had planned since we have the train running.’ But that wasn’t to be,” Jennison said.

It’s been 30 years since the last regularly scheduled passenger train rumbled through Columbus. If the governor gets his wish the Three-C rail corridor would link Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.

The city of Columbus will have the final say on the location of a terminal. Mayor’s spokesman Dan Williamson says potential locations stretch from the convention center to the arena district. But Ohio Rail Development Commission spokesman Stu Nicholson says the convention center is not the most attractive option

“There’s probably three or four different sites that are possible, the most difficult of which ironically is where the old union station used to sit because since the station was torn down back in the ’70s you have to take a look at all the development that has taken place on that land,” Nicholson says. “And over a period of decades that railroad corridor has shrunk because of all the encroaching development on it.”

Intercity passenger rail service is still a ways off. O-DOT says it will cost some $250 million to get train service moving along the Three-C Corridor.

The Ohio House has approved money only to study the project.