Study costs, public support mount for commuter rail: Key vote on northeast corridor could come next month

Worsening gas prices and congestion have some commuters demanding faster progress on launching a rapid transit line. They can quibble about slowness in getting it done, but lack of study hasn’t been an issue.

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Development Organization spent $4 million since 2002 on a rapid transit study that concluded earlier this year, according to records provided by the agency.

Most, or 80 percent, of the funds paid to eight consulting firms came from federal transportation funds, with 20 percent from local sources.

That’s in addition to $1.8 million paid to consulting firms HNTB Corp. and Parsons Brinkerhoff between 1998 and 2001 to study broader rail and highway solutions for the congested northeast corridor.

The former Nickel Plate line between downtown and Noblesville should be the first of seven rapid transit corridors radiating from the center of Indianapolis, the MPO concluded in April.

The former Nickel Plate Line is now owned by the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority. The authority’s tracks are used for excursion trains operated by the Indiana Transportation Museum, of Noblesville.

The MPO also recommended using diesel light rail technology, at least initially. Modern applications of the technology involve bus-like passenger vehicles powered by compact, on-board diesel engines.

Money continues to trickle in for studying rapid transit. In May, the Department of Metropolitan Development agreed to negotiate a contract worth up to $80,000 with HNTB Corp. to provide supplemental transit planning.

The DMD also approved up to $20,000 for communications and “public involvement services” with Jen Thomas PR Inc. to assist the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority. CIRTA is the agency that would essentially build and operate the transit line and help drum up funding and cooperation among local governments.

CIRTA and MPO in recent months conducted a series of meetings in the area to gather public comments on its northeast corridor rapid transit recommendations.

That public input will be presented to the Indianapolis Regional Transportation Council, which is the decision-making body of the transportation planning process.

In September, the IRTC is expected to make its decision on whether to proceed with the northeast rapid transit corridor. That could trigger an environmental impact study and would most certainly launch in earnest funding discussions with cities in the region and in the Indiana General Assembly.

Although it ultimately failed, a bill introduced during the last session by State Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, garnered unusually strong support in a state not known for being transit-friendly in modern times. House Bill 1245 would have allowed state transportation authorities to capture a portion of state sales tax in certain areas to fund transportation systems.

“What we’re really going to push for is some options granted to us by the state Legislature. Give us a tool box that has some funding options in it,” said Christine Altman, president of the CIRTA board and a Hamilton County commissioner.

Altman said sentiment is building that continued studies are getting old, that “we really need to do something.”

CIRTA and rapid transit proponents may have more political capital to make the case for funding.

“While many legitimate concerns have been presented, the most interesting recurrent theme revealed a public desire for more vision and faster progress. The chasm of whether or not now is the time for transit in Central Indiana seems to have been crossed,” states an executive summary of public comments collected during the recent hearings.

The cost of a rapid transit line between downtown and the Noblesville area has been estimated at $500 million to $1 billion, depending on how elaborate. Rudimentary diesel technology could be significantly less expensive.

Last May, the Indiana Transportation Museum proposed running a demonstration route using its existing heavy diesel locomotives and 1930s-era stainless-steel passenger cars-an approach that could cost as little as $20 million. Such a plan would require replacing track removed years ago south of the Indiana State Fairgrounds, to complete the connection to downtown.

Nashville, Tenn., in 2006 launched a 32-mile starter system using heavy diesel locomotives and former Chicago Metra passenger cars, for a relatively cheap $40 million startup cost.

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