Home > Political Animal > Trains and votes and prayers

Trains and votes and prayers

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader

2013-07-03


I will not hold my breath, but I will pray for my many friends who “hope” that rail service will be resumed to Fort Wayne by 2020. It is an ambitious goal.

So, I will pray, but 2020 is a short seven years away, and we’re still a whopping $1.6 or so billion short.

Recently, our mayor returned from an audience with Governor Mike Pence where the governor told Mayor Henry his administration would support Fort Wayne’s efforts to be part of the “high-speed” rail initiative linking Columbus, Ohio with Chicago.
You may remember that Governor Daniels was less than supportive, offering no matching money, which caused the last effort to crash and burn. And therein lies the rub this time, too. Money is the crux of the matter. Mayor Henry did not mention a money commitment.

$1.6 billion or so is the price tag NIPRA (the Northeast Indiana Rail Passenger Association) expects for a passenger line between Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, with Fort Wayne smack dab in the middle. Indiana and “partner” Ohio will split the cost, if all goes right.

The first next step is a $2 million environmental impact study. NIPRA held a fundraiser the other night and must have netted over $2,000, maybe $2,100. $1,979,000 to go… Encourage your friends to pray and send checks. Better yet, encourage State Senator David Long and the rest of the Allen County/Northeast Indiana delegation to “encourage” the gubner to chip in what amounts to pocket change. Six years, six months to go.

There is no question that rail service through Fort Wayne would be an economic development asset with easily the same ROI as all the abatements the city has tossed to dentists and developers: first, business folk in FW would have an alternative to air service which would 1) provide timing options with four to 12 passenger connections daily to Chicago, Columbus, points east and west, 2) deliver business folk directly to the Loop, and 3) be less expensive than air.

Secondly, international tourists would have another stop to contemplate ‘tween DC and Chicago. Really. Hop-on hop-off tickets are the rage in Europe and would be here, too. Stop for the day in FW and visit… well, something. Germanfest says Noch Ein Bier? For Europeans the Fort would be the top attraction, were it ever to be developed into more than a placeholder.

Our downtown would see a few more tourists every day; not many, but a few and enough to help the ballpark and the Library, the Marriott and the Hilton, JKs and the Dash, even Power’s. Yep, expect the genealogical collection to be a “big” winner because rail is attractive to senior riders who have the time and money, and prefer the convenience of leaving the car back in Maryland. And, a whole industry would spring up at the ballpark to translate baseball to cricket for our English visitors.
Certainly, there would be other advantages, including local employment at a station, maintenance workers to keep the line up to snuff and the various others who would keep the system running or prey upon travelers.

For some of us it would simply be nice to train up to Chicago for the day for recreational shopping, a hockey game or a day at the Field Museum. Price will matter.

The experience will also matter. Anyone who has ridden the splendid German trains will wax eloquently about the modern, clean, beautiful and efficient system our Teutonic cousins have built. I was promised our system would be comparable. But, anyone who has ridden AMTRAK will snarl at the shortcoming of our system. Question: why can the German government get it so right and the US system (operating in the self-proclaimed best country in the galaxy) get it so wrong? Question: will NIPRA’s line be any better than the shabby AMTRAK product? NIPRA promises a private firm will operate the equipment and line between Columbus-FW-Chicago. Let’s hope it’s not Aqua Indiana.

On the way to the Loop in a luxurious train car with clean, new plush seats and large windows it would make a nice study in comparing the lush pastures near Plymouth to the more exotic parts of the south side of Chicago or the hulking steel plants near Gary.

So, high speed rail at 110MPH would be good for Fort Wayne, no doubt; but the rub is still money. We have just witnessed City Council scrambling to find new money just to fix our roads and plumbing. The state, too, has long whimpered for lack of funds. Just recently, though, there seems to be a small surplus in Indianapolis, but educators and others are eyeing that money like a hungry vulture over baby chick. $1.6 billion seems a lot. Pray for NIPRA, for Geoff Paddock, for Rich Davis and Fred Lanahan and for the many others who have so much hope. They will need your prayers for a marked upturn in state finances, for the support of David Long’s legislature and the beneficence of My Man Mike. If there is to be rail service by 2020 or 2030 or 2040 pray that the stars align.

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