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Fort Wayne to Indy in 28 minutes?!

That, and many other transportation marvels, could be in Fort Wayne’s future

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Imagine this: you’re a student living downtown with a 10:30 am class out at IPFW. So, you walk a few blocks to a central terminal in the city center, and hop on a “people mover” that carries you out to campus. After your classes, the same conveyance takes you to work, or a shopping center, or back home again.

Or you’re a business person with a meeting in a Milwaukee suburb. Rather than go from Fort Wayne International to O’Hare to General Mitchell, and then arranging for transportation to take you 45 miles outside the city, you get on a light jet at Smith Field, which touches down in a similar airport just a few minutes from your destination.

Or, you want to take in a Pacers or a Colts game in Indianapolis, so you park your car at Fort Wayne International and board a magnetic levitation train that speeds you past bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-69 and gets you to downtown Indy in only 28 minutes.

It sounds like an article from an issue of Popular Science circa 1951: “Super Efficient Transportation in the World of Tomorrow!” But it’s actually three parts of an interconnected transportation system that might end up changing the way we get around, and get in and out of, Fort Wayne.

The ideas are still in the study and planning stages, but proponents believe it’s essential that we start to seriously consider some of these options, or at least something very much like them. Last issue, the Fort Wayne Reader took a look at some of the things people like about living in Fort Wayne, and one of the things that came up was lack of traffic. We ended up not delving into it, but people who had moved to Fort Wayne from larger metropolitan areas said they loved the fact that in this town, 20 minutes was considered a long commute time.

On the other hand, long time residents of Fort Wayne remember a time not so long ago when traffic congestion was as foreign to this part of Indiana as a coconut grove. Sure, maybe it’s not so bad. But try telling that to the Ivy Tech or IPFW student circling the school parking lot for the 6th time looking for an open space. Try telling that to the family trying to get some shopping done in the Coliseum/Coldwater area on a weekend. And we’re in the midst of another snowy, rainy winter that’s going to leave potholes that just can’t wait to wreak havoc on your alignment…

So, it’s a little congested here and there, and maybe some of the roads are a mess, but we can always build more stuff to handle the extra traffic, right? After all, we’re not at a crisis point yet, are we?

Well, we might be soon, and it’s probably a good idea that we start taking a look at possible solutions now, while we have plenty of time to consider our options. “The time has come for the city to realize that building more roads, building more parking lots is not going to be the answer to our transportation situation,” says Kimberly Pontius, the Executive Director of Corporate & Continuing Education Services at Ivy Tech. “Fort Wayne is at a point right now where we can say ‘we can make some changes right now, that 30 years from now, will really pay off with huge benefits.’”

Pontius is part of a loose network of people examining some of our transportation issues in Fort Wayne — how we get around the city, how we go to and from the city — and trying to find a solution that goes beyond the automobile or, for air travel, the hub-and-spoke system. His concept is an intermodal transportation system that incorporates a “people mover” that would connect the city’s education centers, major shopping and services areas, and the two large medical complexes Southwest and North; a high-speed magnetic levitation train offering a 28-minute trip from Fort Wayne to Indianapolis; and the Small Aircraft Transportation system, an “air taxi system” that utilizes light jets to transport people within a 500 mile radius of the point-of-origin.

Pontius says the idea fell together from different conversations he was having with various groups. As the Ivy Tech and the IPFW campuses grew, the schools began to look at more efficient ways of letting students travel between the two campuses and to the new sections of campus being built. Also, every new building required a new parking lot, which according to Pontius takes up to three times the acreage of the building itself. “Our numbers show that it costs about $3,300 per vehicle to create a hard surface parking lot,” he says. “We’re in a land lock situation here. We can only expand so far.”

One solution was the “people mover.” Essentially a rail system using magnetic levitation technology, the idea of the “people mover” grew to connect downtown with the educational facilities, the medical facilities Northeast and Southwest, Fort Wayne International Airport and various shopping and services centers in the city. “There’s a huge increase in training going on between the hospitals and the various education institutes,” Pontius says. “That’s where a lot of workforce training and development has to take place over the next several years. What happens if we had a central point downtown and from the central point you could be connected to the hospital complex up North and the Lutheran complex Southwest?”

What many people think would happen is a decrease in traffic congestion and a decrease in infrastructure costs for everything from shopping centers to the universities.

Pontius is also involved with the Indiana Small Aircraft Transportation Consortium (www.indianasats.com) as academic liaison. SATS is the above mentioned small airplane transportation system, a nationwide research and development program conducted through a public-private partnership jointly managed by NASA, the FAA, and the National Consortium for Aviation Mobility. Essentially, SATS would make it unnecessary for us to fly or drive to a hub to catch a flight to take us where we want to go (the Indiana SATS Consortium was recently approved to set up operations in the new Northeast Indiana Innovation Center facility).

“We hope this system will relieve the hub and spoke system, which really, if it had not been for 9/11, by now would have been beyond its capacity,” Pontius explains. But more immediately, it could make traveling to and from Fort Wayne by air a whole heck of a lot easier. “We’re trying to build a passenger service out of Fort Wayne International, but we’re never going to get the cost-per-seat down,” Pontius says. “SATS is a point-to-point system. So, if I’m sitting here in Fort Wayne and need to be in Cleveland this afternoon, I’ll get on my cell phone or PDA, I’ll enter what I’m looking for, and some service will redirect an airplane to pick me up at Smith or Fort Wayne International and take me to Cleveland.”

And finally there’s the Transrapid, a high-speed rail between Fort Wayne (leaving from Fort Wayne International Airport) and Indianapolis that uses the same low-impact, environmentally friendly magnetic levitation (maglev) technology as the people-mover. Except the Transrapid would go much faster, making the 100+ mile journey in a scant 28 minutes — less time than it would take you to drive from downtown Indy out to Fishers or Carmel. “Theoretically, I can leave Fort Wayne at 7:30, attend a meeting in Indianapolis, and be back in my office before noon,” Pontius says. “It’s not a whole day trip anymore.”

German company ThyssenKrupp has implemented the Transrapid maglev transportation system in Europe and China, They’re very fast (reaching speeds up to 300 mph on a straight track), offer a smooth ride, and they don’t use wheels or overhead powerlines; the train actually levitates, using (according to ThyssenKrupp) “the attractive forces between the electronically controlled electromagnets in the vehicle and the ferromagnetic reaction rails on the underside of the guide way. The support magnets pull the vehicle up to the guideway from below while the guidance magnets keep it laterally in line.” Pontius says he’s talked to people at ThyssenKrupp about the possibility of coming to Fort Wayne and making a presentation to city leaders and people involved in economic development.

The implications of all this go far beyond getting us from point A to point B. Pontius sees the possibility of Fort Wayne International as a major center for domestic travel, while international travel is centered in Indianapolis; of Fort Wayne becoming the cargo hub for the area, with major carriers like UPS or FedEx located here. “Planes will circle Indianapolis or Chicago in far more time than it takes us to land, load, and get it out of Fort Wayne.”

It’s an interesting picture: the residents of Fort Wayne zipping across town on the maglev “people mover” to go to school, go to work, or run errands; commuting to Indianapolis in the time it takes to watch a sitcom; traveling by air without having to face a layover in Cincinnati or Chicago…

But what makes this more than just another “neat” idea? Pontius says it’s not just “neat,” it’s necessary. “I think you have to look at the economics of it,” he says. “10 years ago it used to cost you a million dollars a mile to build a paved road. Obviously, that price has gone up as material costs have gone up. Asphalt is a petroleum by-product, and if it’s not made out of asphalt, it’s made out of concrete. Right now there’s a severe shortage of concrete for construction because, believe it or not, a lot of it is being shipped over seas to China to build infrastructure over there. So there’s a finite supply of resources, and as other parts of the world come online as consumer societies, that supply is going to become even more diminished.”

“Fort Wayne has grown to the point where we need to address the issue for the next 30 or 40 years,” he adds. “As we all know from watching the expansion of I-69, we’ve added an extra lane between certain points to handle the traffic congestion as the city grows. Are we going to expand that, and how many billions are we going to keep pouring into highway systems that we overtax because the more cars we build, the more highways we build, adding truck traffic and stuff like that to it? At some point someone has to scream enough.”

Of course, the big question is, how much is all this going to cost. Pontius says they’re not there yet. Proposals have to be finalized, feasibility studies have to be launched, and then they can talk about funding and possible costs. “Basically, we need to think this makes sense in a long-term investment horizon, that this makes more sense than to keep doing more of what we’re already doing.”

But the cost of the project may not even be the biggest challenge. That honor might belong to weaning Americans off our car culture. In the US, automobiles are more than just a means from getting us from point A to point B; they’re practically a second home. And though the “buzz” these days may be on hybrid vehicles, this hasn’t quite translated into sales yet — sales of hybrids more than doubled in 2004 to around 222,000 vehicles sold, paltry compared to overall automobile sales of 16 million +. In short, we still seem to plump for perceived performance over fuel efficiency and lower emissions, and we’d rather drive than take the bus.

Pontius is well aware of that, but he thinks that even though we’re a car culture, there are plenty of people out there who can see the traffic headaches on the horizon, and want other options. “You’re going to get a certain audience when you talk about air travel, you’re going to get a certain audience when you talk about maglevs to Indianapolis,” he says. “But what you really want to do is appeal to the public at large. So you have to say, ‘if you can easily access all these different modes of transportation, how does this change your world?’”

The key phrase here is “easy access.” As an example, Pontius points out that Fort Wayne has a downtown that everyone says they’d like to see revitalized, but the essential catalyst needed to turn downtown into a vibrant residential, retail and cultural center is transportation that’s easy to access, easy to use, and gets you where you need to go. Until people can easily access everything they want to do without having to crawl in a car, the city center is not going to be a viable option. “In order to revitalize downtown, you have to get people living down there,” Pontius says. “Who are those people most likely going to be? They’re going to be people looking for cost-effective housing, and a way to get them to the services and the places they want to go. Quite frankly, that’s the educational centers and the shopping centers. If they have an easy-to-use transportation system, this starts to build a community downtown.”

Pontius adds that once an easily accessible transportation system is in place the city can start restricting traffic flow through downtown. “We limit the amount of traffic, build more green space, and we start bringing back a higher quality of life downtown,” he says.

And once we cut down on the number of flat, paved surfaces in the area, we can work on another natural attraction of Fort Wayne that seems to have gotten short shrift — the rivers. “Why don’t people use the rivers for canoeing and kayaking? Other parts of the country do. People always say, ‘we don’t have mountains and oceans.’ Well, you work with what you’ve got. We’ve got three very beautiful rivers right here that could provide a lot of recreational opportunities, but right now, all they carry is run-off and some sewage.”

Another possible bonus — someone needs to build this massive transportation system (shipping it here would be a logistic and financial nightmare), and doing so could keep several industries very, very busy for decades. The ideal community to build such a huge project would have steel production facilities, concrete plants, factories for manufacturing automotive components… “This stuff is already here,” Pontius says. “We could create a whole family of new industries.”

When asked about the next step, Pontius says that all he can really do is put this idea out there and see if the community leaders are interested. He has no doubt, however, that something is going to have to be done, and that Fort Wayne is ripe for it. “If you look at cities like Portland, Seattle, those cities that exploded in the 70s and 80s, they were thinking far enough ahead, to where they said ‘look, you’re taking a whole bunch of people from a very large region, you’re trying to shove them all down into this location right here, and something’s got to happen,’” Pontius says. “Fort Wayne doesn’t usually think of itself as a city that’s on the move, but the fact is, we’re on the move. We’re growing whether we like it or not.”

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