Planners to pare down commuter-rail options: Vote for light diesel trains would precede design

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Goodbye elevated guideway. Goodbye buses zooming down paved-over rail beds. For that matter, forget about commuter trains running down the median of Binford Boulevard and I-69. Or along Allisonville Road or Keystone Avenue.

These northeast corridor rapid-transit options, cheered and jeered by residents in the debate over rapid transit, officially get thrown from the train on Sept. 26.

That’s if a regional government group votes to accept the recommendation of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization for running diesel light rail on the former Nickel Plate Line as early as 2012.

The Indianapolis Regional Transportation Council earlier this year told the MPO to take that idea for a northeast commuter rail system to the public for more comment.

It did, in the form of several public hearings. The MPO-and the agency that will implement the commuter rail line, the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority-are still all aboard the idea of using the former Nickel Plate rail corridor as the “preferred alignment.”

The big question is will the IRTC, comprised of 36 municipalities from Avon to Zionsville, roll with the recommendation.

“I’m cautiously optimistic. In general, many of the members of the council see how this fits into the big picture of the region,” said Ehren Bingaman, who just finished his first year as executive director of CIRTA.

Bingaman, 32, said the public hearings this summer convinced him more than ever that metro residents and employers are demanding alternatives to the city’s congested highways.

Still, even if the IRTC gives its blessings this month to commuter cars powered by small diesel engines running up and down the Nickel Plate, it’s just another step in the long and daunting effort to launch commuter rail.

An affirmative vote by IRTC “is not a commitment to fund it,” said Christine Altman, a Hamilton County Commissioner from Carmel and president of the CIRTA board. But, she noted, it would go a long way toward paring the number of alternatives that have come up at public meetings, such as the debate over using elevated guideway technology or electric light-rail vehicles.

It would also scuttle from the first phase of the northeast line the idea of running the train in three other possible directions north of 46 th Street, including a zigzagging configuration along Keystone Avenue.

A nod from IRTC also would clear the way to launch an environmental impact study needed if the city ever wants to lasso a federal grant toward the Nickel Plate corridor.

Altman said an extensive environmental impact study could cost $2 million and take 18 months to complete. But she said an impact study for the northeast corridor was conducted previously by the MPO, and she hopes to convince the Federal Transit Administration to let the city forgo at least some additional study to avoid duplication and to save time and money.

Funding may be the biggest hurdle of all.

The most basic startup cost using the corridor and diesel multiple units-think an upscale city bus with a diesel engine and train wheels-is estimated at $160 million to $200 million.

CIRTA and a coalition of other transit proponents will be back at the statehouse again in January trying to secure funding for the rail line and transit projects statewide.

They were encouraged last year by the progress of HB 1245, by State Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, which would have created transit development districts, among other things.

Though ultimately failing to advance at the end of the session, the bill would have allowed transportation authorities in designated corridors to capture a portion of sales tax for transportation systems.

Bingaman said innovative financing legislation could gain traction if it can benefit projects statewide.

Beyond the steep incline the project faces in funding is the issue of land acquisition for stations, which could be built using public-private partnerships, and potential opposition from adjacent property owners concerned about noise and vibration.

The technology chosen, so-called diesel multiple units, are quieter and use less fuel than traditional diesel.

The Nickel Plate Line being recommended by MPO and CIRTA is a relatively straight shot-unlike some of the other corridor proposals that would have veered closer to Carmel.

Until a rail extension could be built to Carmel, the city would likely have to continue to rely on express buses that IndyGo now runs to Carmel and to Fishers, Altman said.

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