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Back on Track — Part 2

The NIPRA hopes to show why passenger rail in the region should be a priority

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2012-09-10


Back in April of 2009, the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association held a rally at the old Baker Street Station in support of renewed passenger rail service through Fort Wayne.

The last passenger train had rolled out of there nearly 20 years earlier, but the issue had been bubbling away in the minds of many local leaders and elected officials since the late 90s. The rally at the Baker Street station — which was attended by about a thousand people — seemed the start of a more focused and concentrated effort towards bringing passenger rail back. Fuelled by rising gas prices, environmental concerns, and the potential for economic activity in a country still reeling from the financial crisis in October the previous year, interest in passenger rail service seemed high, and the time seemed ripe to move forward on the issue.

The time also seemed ripe for another reason — money. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (otherwise known as the stimulus bill) allotted around $8 billion towards the upgrade and maintenance of existing tracks; the creation of new tracks; and planning for future tracks.

But when we covered the NIPRA in FWR #126, co-founder Geoff Paddock and others involved urged patience. While they were encouraged by the enthusiasm the idea seemed to evoke, they warned that it might take a while for all the pieces to fall into place.

And indeed, those waiting for a steady stream of progress reports from the initiative have probably grown tired of checking their favored media outlets. But Geoff Paddock says the effort has not lost momentum in the more than three years since the NIPRA’S first Baker Street Station rally, and that the organization has been busy building coalitions among elected officials and community leaders in communities from Northwest Indiana through Ohio, and organizing their resources in preparation for the next step.

Just what that next step might be came to light last month, when the NIPRA announced it had secured funding to conduct a feasibility study — the Northern Indiana/Ohio Passenger Rail Corridor Study and Business Plan — that it hopes will lay the foundation for a return of passenger rail service running from Chicago through Fort Wayne, eventually extending to Columbus and points farther east. “This will help pave the way,” Paddock says (though perhaps “lay the tracks” might be a more appropriate metaphor). “It’ll give us a better idea of what specific upgrades needed to be made — track replacements, signalization, new ties, new overpasses, station renovation — and perhaps give us an idea of how many jobs would be created.”

Paddock adds the feasibility study would also give them a cost estimate. “Obviously, it wouldn’t be really hard numbers until you do an engineering study, but we could get a general idea of what the cost might be.”

Half the funding for the study — which Paddock hopes to see completed by the end of the year — was secured by Mayor Henry and County Commissioners Linda Bloom, Therese Brown, and Nelson Peters. Other funding was secured by grants from the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne; Indiana & Michigan Power; Steel Dynamics, Inc. the City of Lima Ohio; and the Greater Lima Community Foundation.

The benefits of passenger rail service are just as relevant as they were in 2009 — it’s environmentally friendly, takes congestion off the highways, spurs economic growth, and can create jobs.

But if the benefits are still there, so are the challenges, at least in our section of the country. That $8 billion from the stimulus bill, for example, was meant for the whole country, and priority areas — areas with a more developed passenger rail infrastructure — got the bulk of it. Indiana received about $72 million of that, most of which went to addressing congestion issues in Lake and Porter counties. Those up on their geography will recognize the close proximity of those counties to a major metropolitan area, though Paddock points out that that’s the kind of work that needed to be done in order for plans for Northeast Indiana to move forward.

Part what the NIPRA hopes to accomplish with the feasibility study is to make this area of the Midwest a priority for future funding from the Federal Rail Administration. “What we’re hoping for is that as we build more interest in this coalition with Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania, we’ll become a priority for the next upgrade,” Paddock says. “We are fortunate in the sense that we are 150 miles from Chicago and Columbus, and the fastest way from Chicago to Columbus is through Fort Wayne, so that may help move this along.”

Still, the Federal Rail Administration’s budget isn’t a great deal for a project this size, clocking in at around $3 billion. The state, Paddock explains, will have to commit dollars to the project, too; perhaps up to 20% of the match from the federal government. Paddock says he’s encouraged by the bi-partisan support the effort has received so far, not just in the region, but across the country. “A lot of governors are seeing the benefit of this, precisely because of the potential for economic activity,” he says.

But the results of the study are predicted to come out at the end of the year, and whether the future governor of Indiana, whoever that might be, is receptive to those results is another matter. In the current political climate, spending federal and state money doesn’t seem as… we’ll say “easy” as it did in 2009.

It’s an issue Paddock says is raised quite often. Once again, the key, of course, is demonstrating that the project can create jobs and economic activity. “We’re hoping that the benefits of rail, as far as economic development is concerned, will influence whoever is elected governor and to the state legislator this November. There is a challenge that the state is going to have to commit to some dollars for this, but there could be ways to see some private sector support there, and that’s a subject we hope to get into after the study is completed.”

But Paddock points out that Indiana is spending a lot of money to upgrade US 24 to the Ohio line. It’s spending a lot of money to extend Interstate 69 to Evansville. It’s spending a lot of money on the “Fort-to-Port” project… All long term-projects, and all good projects that Paddock supports, but they’re expensive and controversial. “We are running out of room to build highways, and it’s becoming more expensive and difficult to maintain the ones we have,” Paddock says. “We’re hoping that upgrading rail, which would be much less expensive, could create the kinds of jobs and economic activity that highways have done in the past 50 years. Where would we be now if we hadn’t had the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, so that now it’s not only easier and faster to get from place-to-place, but it’s created a lot of jobs and commerce along the way? But we think rail is the next generation, the interstate highway system of the 21st century.”

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