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Study examines regional commuter rail types and their expense

December 1, 2008
The Metropolitan Development Commission has given city planners the green light to seek an expedited study that would provide a clearer picture of what a comprehensive regional transit system could look like and how much it would cost.

Up to now, most of the attention has focused on the northeast route between downtown and Fishers.

The commission on Nov. 12 authorized city planners to amend an existing consulting agreement with HNTB Corp. to develop a big-picture concept that could be presented to the Indiana General Assembly early next year.

But the city's principal planning agency, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, said it has no immediate plans to tap HNTB Corp. to start the work, which would be paid for with $260,000 in federal funds already allocated to the city.

"It's in case we need to get something prepared on a short-term basis," said Mike Dearing, manager of the MPO.

Whatever the bureaucratic and political algorithm, it's clear that planners are getting their cars in order for what's likely to be another attempt by commuter rail advocates to secure a local funding mechanism through the Legislature.

One mechanism that failed during the last session but may be reintroduced would allow a regional transit authority to designate a corridor for mass transit and capture a portion of state sales tax from within that district.

Local funding is likely to be the biggest component of a future transit system as federal dollars become scarce and because many other cities are ahead of Indianapolis in line at the federal transportation trough.

Metro leaders have come to the conclusion that they'll need extensive regional cooperation to launch and build out a rail system. That was reinforced last month when 60 business and civic leaders visited booming commuter rail city Denver, where leaders said cohesiveness was essential.

"I'm fairly confident there's going to be a bill," said Ehren Bingaman, executive director of the Central Indiana Regional Transit Authority. CIRTA has proposed a diesel light rail line from downtown to Noblesville, via the former Nickel Plate Line, as the first leg of a regional rail system coordinated with IndyGo bus connections.

Besides providing a clearer picture of what a city-wide rail system radiating from downtown would look like and how much it would cost, the expedited study would "enable the general public to understand a sequential story of where population and employment growth is projected over the next three decades," stated a memo included in the packet the Metropolitan Development Commission approved Nov. 12.

The expedited study also would look at how the region would be served by transit "and how certain strategic station areas will tap into economic development driven by high-level regional transportation."

Perhaps most compelling to the public — and most useful in getting communities to buy into the billions of dollars it would cost their residents to fund a metro area system — would be seeing the potential locations of rail corridors.

The memo HNTB sent to the MPO suggests dusting off eight railroad corridors that the planning agency identified in previous studies, but to show them in more detail for public presentation. The eight corridors involve active freight track principally used by CSX, Louisville and Indiana Railroad, and Indiana Rail Road.

Of course, using those lines would require striking agreements with the private railroads. There have been some preliminary discussions with CSX and Indiana Rail Road, Bingaman said.

Sharing track would not be unprecedented. Commuter rail systems in cities such as Austin, Texas, run commuter rail cars on freight track. Or, they strike deals with railroads to place dedicated commuter track within the freight railroads' existing rights-of-way.

HNTB said one of the advantages of the preferred rail system for the northeast corridor — diesel light rail transit — is that it uses standard railroad infrastructure, "making it possible to deploy the same operating equipment on any railroad line in the region.

"This is particularly relevant for central Indiana [because] rail lines converge from virtually every direction in downtown Indianapolis. Most of those lines offer significant capacity for daily passenger use."

The expedited HNTB study, if launched by the MPO, would "provide context for a northeast corridor starter line relative to the entire system of transit corridors, as well as describe how new cross-town bus systems will feed riders into the higher-level rail transit."

It would also estimate daily ridership for each corridor and flesh out costs to build and operate each corridor.

"There is a good foundation in a lot of work that's been done already. We have a lot of the parts and pieces. We've never really woven them together," Bingaman said. He indicated that CIRTA also is considering partnering with consultants on a big-picture presentation.

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