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Back on track

The Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association says the time is ripe for the return of passenger train service through Fort Wayne. What will it take to make it happen?

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2009-05-18


The last passenger train rolled out of Fort Wayne’s Baker Street Station during the fall of 1990, but it seems that ever since then, rumors of Amtrak’s return to the city have popped up every few years or so.

But in early April, a rally at the Baker Street Station in support of renewing passenger rail service through Fort Wayne was the strongest sign yet that the idea might become a reality sometime in the very near future. Around a thousand people showed up to voice their support, while a representative from Amtrak and several local political leaders, including Mayor Henry, spoke in favor of the idea.

The rally was hosted by the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association (NIPRA); the organization’s mission is to work with local, state, and federal elected and appointed officials, as well as business leaders in this region, to promote the return of passenger rail service to Fort Wayne. “I think one of the reasons passenger rail service is so popular is that it appeals to so many different groups of people — college students, young professionals, business people, retired people…” says Geoff Paddock, one of the co-founders of NIPRA. “Some of it is the nostalgia of some older folks for riding a train, but I think there’s an appeal to young people who have never had the opportunity to ride a train. There’s also an appeal in the business community; many businesses send executives to Chicago by automobile, and there’s a feeling that this could open up more travel…” The route that stops in Fort Wayne would go to Chicago to the west and Toledo and Cleveland to the east, and those communities along the way.

NIPRA is a fairly new organization, but Paddock says he and other people involved in the group have been working on this issue for over a decade. “I was appointed to a transportation advisory board under Governor Bayh back in the 90s, and we were looking at this issue in ‘98 when Paul Helmke was mayor,” he says. “When you would talk about it over the years people, would kind of roll their eyes and say ‘oh yeah, sure. That’s a pipe dream, that’s pie in the sky, that’ll never happen.’ But I think there’s now more of a feeling that it can happen for a number of reasons.”

Indeed, according to NIPRA, the benefits of renewed passenger service through Fort Wayne go far beyond opportunities for business travel and tourism. Last summer, for example, the high price of gasoline made many people start thinking seriously about alternative modes of transportation, and though the cost of filling up your tank has dropped since then, we now find ourselves in an economy where your average consumer is carefully watching where every nickel goes.

There’re also environmental factors. We’re a little more environmentally astute than we were a decade ago, with concern about carbon emissions, fuel consumption, and other issues. “Trains use something like 1/10 the amount of fuel per passenger mile when compared to automotive travel,” says Dr. Tom Hayhurst, another NIPRA co-founder. “That’s 400 people in a train versus one in a car. It means less fuel consumption, and it’s one of those things that brings us one step closer to energy independence.”

Furthermore, many cities have found that when they expand rail, a lot of new economic development occurs around rail stations — something a city looking to revive its downtown would find appealing. “The Baker Street Station being activated again with passengers could create more economic activity for our community, estimated maybe some $30 million a year,” says Paddock.

So, passenger rail is environmentally friendly, takes congestion off the highways, spurs economic growth… and perhaps most appealing it can create jobs. Lots of ‘em. “We know that the network in Indiana … would create as many as 4500 in the construction industry and the service industry, servicing the trains and the stations and the safety equipment and so on,” says Paddock. “A number of those jobs would be producing steel to upgrade the tracks, which could be done by Steel Dynamics right across the county line and other Indiana steel companies.”

Passenger rail has been experiencing renewed interest in other parts of the US. Marc Magliari, Media Relations Manager for Amtrak, says the company has seen six years of ridership growth. “There are places in the country now where there is more service than there has been since we started operating in 1971,” he says.

As we said above, Amtrak stopped service to Fort Wayne nearly two decades ago. “At the time, I believe there was a technical problem in Northwest Indiana that would have required millions of dollars to correct,” Hayhurst recalls. “As I understand it, the Feds, the railways themselves, the areas in Indiana… no one wanted to put the money in. It was found that if the passenger trains were routed north of Fort Wayne to Waterloo that they could make their way to Chicago without the significant expenditure to correct that bottleneck problem. That was the final blow.”

Hayhurt’s recollection illustrates another important point — while popular support is, of course, necessary, it takes state and local legislators to really get a project of this magnitude going. Once again, Paddock says there are several reasons why state and local government are taking a new look at the idea of passenger rail, and why things are different than they were 20 years ago. The first is traffic congestion; Paddock believes we’re realizing there’s not much more space to build new highways, or much desire to. “The I-69 extension to Evansville was a very controversial project, and very expensive, so I think there’s a feeling that there’s a limitation to new highway construction,” he says by way of example. “There’s also a limitation to how wide you can build these highways. So I’m not saying we don’t want to continue to maintain our roads, and maybe build some new ones where we can, but those possibilities are somewhat limited.”

Also, Fort Wayne is the second largest city in the state, and Paddock says we are also one of the largest cities in the country without rail service. “We have a large metro area now, of over 500,000 people, and there was a feeling from Amtrak that it was time to examine this issue again,” he adds.

“Finally, I think we need to have this third leg of transportation in addition to air, in addition to automobile and truck travel, we need to have a balanced transportation plan and that it includes rail.”

Of course, that’s why the return passenger rail service might be good for our part of Indiana. What would make it possible this time around? “Certainly, the stars have lined up in a couple of different ways,” says Marc Magliari, spokesperson for Amtrak. He explains that last year, Congress passed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA), setting guidelines under which Amtrak will be operating for the next five years, and sets up a program where the Federal government and the states share the capitol costs of improving current routes and bringing trains to areas that aren’t served.

On top of that, it’s getting a jump start by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus plan. Under the plan, there’s $8 billion set aside for either improvements to current routes, or development of new routes.

But here’s where it gets tricky: there are going to be plenty of other states — including some of our neighbors — looking for a chunk of that $8 billion. “$8 billion might sound like a lot of money to you and me, but in the scheme of things, there is so much desire out there, so many plans that are pretty far along, that it would not be hard to find a way to spend that $8 billion in just a couple places around the country,” says Magliari. “The states are very much a part of this picture, and they need to have a state rail plan in place that says ‘here’s where we want passenger trains to run.’ And they have to at least have some agreements with the host railroads to look at using their routes for trains.”

Magliari points out that Indiana is surrounded by states that are already engaged in this process. “Governor Strickland and the Ohio Rail Development Commission have (Amtrak) doing studies on the ‘three Cs and a D corridor’ — Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati via Dayton. Michigan has been a long time state partner of ours. We own some track in Michigan where we have been working on a next generation signaling system. And of course Illinois has been a partner since 1971, and we run about $28 million worth of service there. On those three of your four sides, there are states that have been very engaged in passenger rail service, and those states have state rail plans and in some cases have memorandums of understanding with the host railroads.”

June 17 is a critical date for NIPRA. That’s when the US Department of Transportation will release more specifics of the Federal guidelines on how to apply for some of that $8 billion of the stimulus plan. Paddock says NIPRA would like people to contact their local legislators and ask them to support this effort. Paddock has seen renewed interest from state and local legislators, including Congressman Mark Souder and Governor Daniels. “The response has gone from caution and disbelief that this plan could come forward, to more enthusiasm now that there’s a mechanism to fund it,” he says. “There will be other temptations out there, so we want to make sure that Fort Wayne is a high priority, and I’m hoping our legislators will help make that argument for us.”

And as far as a timeline on when we might see passenger rail service return to Fort Wayne? Obviously, it’s a few years off. Even though a lot of the road bed is still there from Fort Wayne to Chicago, many of the tracks will have to be upgraded, and that will take some time and expense…

But NIPRA has a vision: 2016. That’s Indiana’s bicenntennial, and it’s also the year the summer Olympics might be in Chicago. “It’s one of the things we sometimes talk about,” says Hayhurst. “We like to envision that in 2016 you can get on a train in Fort Wayne which will take you right into the heart of Chicago, and you can go to the Olympics.”

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