Sunday, June 21, 2009

Why Not Fund Ohio's 3-C Turtle Train with Video Slots?

Why Not Fund Ohio's 3-C Turtle Train with Video Slots?

Strickland's Policy Switch on Slots Would Let Rail Passengers Spin Their Wheels Too

by John Michael Spinelli

June 21, 2009

COLUMBUS, OHIO: The Great State of Ohio has failed four times over nearly two decades to convince its voters to allow casino gaming interests to set up shop inside its borders. From former Republican Gov. George Voinovich to today's Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, the mantra of one chief executive after another has been that gambling is a bad idea that would make the poor poorer, unlock the door to criminals and crime and enrich gaming interests at the expense of state coffers, which would be hard pressed to fund services to combat the social ills opponents of gambling say would be unleashed if the Satan of sin is allowed to run wild here.

Yet despite the moral hazards opponents of gambling predict would happen if slot machines or casino-style gambling were to come to a state already surrounded by states that allow them, the announcement last week by Strickland's budget mavens that Ohio's next budget, which by law starts July 1, has a $3.2 billion hole in it, has caused the good Governor, who has long opposed gaming and gambling, to turn the other cheek by signaling he is ready to permit the state's seven horse racing tracks to add video slot machines to their operations. Unable to resist the lure of maybe as much as $765 million coming to the aid of future budgets, by holding his nose on the ascent of maybe 14,000 one-armed bandits into Ohio's frantic search for public revenues, Strickland can no longer backtrack now that the slot machine proposal is out of the barn.

While the topic of video slot machines has percolated throughout Buckeyeville for a while, the question that sounds like a joke but which might be one practical way to fund Strickland's proposal to spend millions the state doesn't have on a slow train to the past that would chug diagonally from Cincinnati to Cleveland over more than six hours is to replace passenger seats with video slot machines. Doing so would be a perfect passenger-rail user fee, one that would allow those riding the rails to spin their wheels and have their losses fund the slow train to the past, whose need and ridership are simple but important questions state transportation leaders cannot answer with certainly but only with estimates that will only lead to real jaw-dropping if and when any real bids are let and returned.

This kind of user fee, which Washington is smiling on more and more as once dependable road and bridge funding sources like the Highway Trust Fund go broke as driver's drive less and fewer gas taxes are collected, would also liberate the rest of Ohio's taxpayers, who don't live along the corridor and who won't be using the train for various reasons, from funding the $1 billion-plus plan for a train that will only average 57-mph and will take until 2025 to be fully realized as out-dated plans project.

While it sounds like a joke to spend so much one-time federal stimulus money on a train loaded with slots, the idea was raised in all seriousness by one railroad historical society that said Strickland should do just that. One person who attended the meeting and contacted SOA, said the Ohio-only train could have the on-board slots so that the revenues would stay in the state. How would an intercity or interstate train handle slot business when traveling through states that don't permit gambling? Simple, just turn off the power to them while the train is in that state.

For such a sky-high price tag, Ohio's train to the past would be slow. Over the projected six hours or more it would take paying passengers to traverse the approximately 250 miles between Cincinnati and Cleveland, they could spin their wheels while the train spun it's steel wheels. If Lady Luck wasn't riding with them, so much the better for Ohio coffers.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and desperate times have come to Ohio. If a Methodist minister like Strickland who has long viewed gambling as a secular revenue trap and a Biblical moral hazard can reverse course on it, maybe it's not such a far-fetched joke to think that locomotives running on steel wheels can also have scores of other kinds of spinning wheels on it, too.

John Michael Spinelli is a Certified Economic Development Financing Professional, business and travel writer and former credentialed Ohio Statehouse political reporter. He is registered to lobby in Ohio and is the Director of Ohio Operations for Tubular Rail Inc. Spinelli on Assignment is syndicated by, can be followed on Twitter @OhioNewsBureau and available for subscription to Kindle owners. To send a news tip or make comment, email

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