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Indiana to seek better future deal on Amtrak line to Chicago

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Indiana lawmakers said Wednesday they plan to re-examine a deal that will keep the Amtrak line between Indianapolis and Chicago running for at least another year.

Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence and local leaders signed off on a measure Tuesday that would use state and local taxes to cover the cost of operating the line. The agreement will keep trains running through January 2015, but sustainability questions persist.

IBJ reported earlier Wednesday that Indianapolis would pitch in $300,000 in federal transportation money to help keep the line running.

Members of the General Assembly's transportation study committee would like to take a look at the agreement in the coming year. House Transportation Chairman Ed Soliday said he has concerns about the value of the rail service, noting that high costs do not match the more than five hours it takes to get from Indianapolis to Chicago on the route.

"All we're saying is you've got to do better service for the citizens who are paying for this," Soliday said.

Congress voted in 2008 to stop funding passenger rail routes less than 750 miles long. Indiana lost roughly $3 million in aid for its Hoosier State Line to Chicago. Amtrak notified the state this past spring that it would have to end the service without new funding.

The 196-mile Hoosier State runs four days a week and carried nearly 37,000 passengers last year. The line makes stops in Crawfordsville, Lafayette, Rensselaer and Dyer.

Supporters cheered the agreement to keep the service running Wednesday. Arvid Olson, director of development at Faith Ministries in Lafayette and a leader in the effort to salvage the route, argued it is especially crucial for college communities such as the one surrounding Purdue University. Younger residents and international students are increasingly relying on alternatives to cars, he said, and access to Chicago is a major selling point in retaining international talent.

"What we did yesterday was a building block. We're not done yet," Olson told lawmakers.

Supporters have also noted the service helps keep Indiana residents employed. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association estimates the service accounts for 500 jobs.

But the economics of the service have made it a hard sell at times. An average of 180 passengers used the service each day, according to the most recent Amtrak numbers. The roughly $3.9 million in annual operation and equipment costs last year were offset by only $907,000 in ticket sales.

Soliday, a Valparaiso Republican, pointed out that the south shore commuter rail into Chicago operates at roughly half the subsidies needed for the Amtrak service. The study committee can only make recommendations, although lawmakers may consider changes in the deal when they return in January for their 2014 session.

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