Test run of commuter rail could be relatively cheap

May 19, 2008

Planners and politicians spent the better part of a decade and untold millions of dollars studying a mass transit system between downtown and the suburbs.

They have little to show for it except mounds of reports, route maps and an estimate of $690 million--the amount they think it would cost to build out a northeastern route, probably no sooner than 2035.

But the boys in bib overalls at the Indiana Transportation Museum, running a few numbers of their own, may finally get it done quicker and for much less.

By their estimate, the price tag for a 20-mile initial line to Fishers could be even a bigger bargain than Nashville's new $40 million commuter rail line, currently hailed as the nation's least-expensive.

"We could do something as a demonstration project for probably under $20 million," said Art Hall, board chairman of the Indiana Transportation Museum in Noblesville, which runs restored passenger cars on the former Nickel Plate Line in Hamilton and northern Marion County.

Mind you, that's his crew's best guess as to how much it would cost to get track and train ready just for special events to downtown; the rigors of daily commuter service would require a bigger investment in equipment.

Federal government regulations on everything from the environment to handicap access would pile on more costs.

"They, quite frankly, have probably spent more on studies than it would cost us to get it going," said the can-do Hall.

But a recent vote by the Indianapolis Regional Transportation Council, the decision-making entity that includes elected officials from throughout the region, may amount to a light at the end of the tunnel for restoring a sliver of the commuter rail that once flourished here in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The IRTC voted unanimously to present to the public a recommendation by the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization to use the Nickel Plate Line for commuter rail, using diesel locomotives. The MPO is the federally mandated transportation planning body for the Indianapolis region.

If comment is favorable, the IRTC later this year could formally approve the plan. The transportation museum and Hamilton County officials have proposed using the museum's fleet to get things rolling, shaving hundreds of millions of dollars in costs and years from the launch of service.

The museum has at least two diesel locomotives in good running condition, plus a handful of others. It also has 12 stainless steel Budd Corp. passenger cars dating to the late 1930s; eight of them are in operating condition.

"We have quite a bit of equipment that could be very easily upgraded," Hall said.

From the time funding is secured--that could easily take a couple of years--Hall estimates the trains could start running to downtown within 24 months.

Heading down different track

That's potentially a few decades sooner than it would take to establish a more elaborate transit system. The MPO studied 13 route and transit technology combinations over the years. The most popular, based on public input, is an elevated track sporting vehicles akin to a monorail.

But a number of factors have come into play that dictate launching commuter rail sooner and cheaper.

One is growing congestion on interstates 69 and 465. The Indiana Department of Transportation plans to widen and reconfigure lanes, but work is years away and probably won't solve capacity problems.

Another is the sharp, and likely permanent, spike in gasoline prices. Also, the Environmental Protection Agency has once again tightened limits for ground-level ozone emissions, caused mostly by motor vehicles.

Perhaps most significantly, federal funding likely needed for a more ambitious commuter rail system is becoming scarce. The last time Ehren Bingaman checked, there were 144 cities in line ahead of Indianapolis.

"There's so much competition for federal transportation dollars. ... So we feel the first attempt is probably going to be on our shoulders," said Bingaman, executive director of the Central Indiana Regional Transit Authority.

If Nickel Plate gets the green light, CIRTA would commission an environmental impact study, secure preliminary engineering and pursue funding.

Bingaman, who previously led reuse efforts for Fort Benjamin Harrison, doesn't downplay the challenge of getting funding for transit. He is encouraged, however, at progress during the last session of the Indiana General Assembly. House Bill 1245, authored by State Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, was ultimately derailed but received strong support in a state not known for being transit-friendly.

It would have allowed transportation authorities to capture a portion of state sales tax to fund transportation systems, among other things.

Look for a big push by transit backers in the next session.

"This is still a box we need to check off," Bingaman said.

Thrifty rail buffs

Enter the volunteers from the Indiana Transportation Museum.

Hall, an East Coast resident accustomed to mass transit, figures his team has both the fiscal and marketing solutions to help launch a commuter line.

First the fiscal part: doing it on the cheap. (Hall prefers to call it "adaptive reuse.")

The nearly 40 miles of the former Nickel Plate line from Indianapolis to Tipton isn't usable south of the state fairgrounds, around 38th Street. The track, in fact, is gone south of 20th Street. "Believe it or not, it was stolen" years ago, Hall said, likely for scrap.

Besides track, the line needs a bridge at 10th Street, just east of the I-65/I-70 corridor downtown. The old Nickel Plate rail bed can still be seen just to the side and above the grade of the Monon Trail, at 10th Street. The old bridge was removed during the construction of the interstate in the 1970s.

But Hall and his volunteers have become experts at securing the hard-to-find for the rail line they lovingly restored miles north in Noblesville. They already have leads on several used bridges they figure can be bought cheap and dropped in.

Track also needs to be laid farther south, where it would eventually tie into a network passing through Union Station. The Nickel Plate corridor is owned by the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority, created by Fishers and a handful of other Hamilton County towns to preserve the line for future use.

A lot of this rings to the tune of what Nashville did to get the first leg of its commuter rail system launched in 2006.

Nashville's low-budget line

Nashville also partnered with a rail authority, as it was much more cooperative than commercial railroads with rail corridors in that region. Thanks in part to a $6 million appropriation from Congress, Nashville's Regional Transit Authority rehabilitated bridges and 32 miles of track running between the city's riverfront and the city of Lebanon, Tenn., to the east. The track is shared with freight trains.

As for equipment, "we knew we had to have used cars," said Allyson Shumate, project director for the Music City Star commuter rail line.

A consultant steered them to Chicago's Metra transit line, which had retired a number of double-decker passenger cars. Nashville bought them for a mere $1, thanks to the fact that the federal government had some remaining ownership interest in the cars.

The cars needed work, including making them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Nashville also had to create six train stations. But they're austere, with most lacking even rest rooms.

There was good reason for the austerity: Funding came largely from a mixture of local and county governments and from the state of Tennessee.

"This is one of the few transit lines in the country that doesn't have any dedicated revenue sources," Shumate said.

On the first day of service, in September 2006, about 350 people boarded. This April, an average 710 people rode the Music City Star each day.

Getting started

The volunteers at Noblesville's transportation museum already have plenty of experience in running a railroad and cultivating interest in ridership.

The museum--on an annual budget of $540,000 plus a $200,000 grant from the Hamilton visitors and convention bureau--runs trains throughout the year. They rumble south to Fishers and to the state fairgrounds in Indianapolis--and north to Tipton County. The venues range from dinner trains to the annual Polar Bear Express to a train to the state fair. The museum's trains carry 21,000 people during the two weeks of the fair alone.

"We have a lot more ability than people realize," Hall said.

What he envisions, after track is restored to downtown Indianapolis, is introducing potential commuters "in a fun way" to the train by first launching entertainment runs.

That could be a train to a Colts football game, or even service in conjunction with a convention center event. The service could include food or other perks to win over local residents largely unfamiliar with the concept of mass transit, Hall said.

CIRTA is going to move quickly to assess public input on the proposed Nickel Plate line. A number of sessions are already scheduled for June in Indianapolis and Fishers.

Issues likely to arise include noise and vibration concerns among those who live along the rail corridor.

"We genuinely want to hear their comments--good and bad," Bingaman said.

If the northeastern commuter line proceeds, it's likely upgrades would come down the road, such as modern commuter rail cars propelled by diesel engines or other technologies.

Bingaman's guess is that the IRTC will make a decision sometime this fall.

"To me, this thing is as ready as it's ever been."

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