City officials in Indianapolis have cast the future of an Amtrak passenger line between Indianapolis and Chicago into doubt after deciding not to provide any additional money to subsidize the line.
Indianapolis leaders had signed onto a one-year deal last year to provide $300,000 for the Hoosier State line, which runs four times a week between Indianapolis and Chicago, with stops along the way.
But Indiana Department of Transportation official Bob Zier told the Journal and Courier that Indianapolis officials aren't interested in providing any additional money. The city's decision comes after the state announced that a private vendor had been selected to run the line.
Indianapolis Department of Public Works spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson said the city might reconsider its decision if that vendor significantly improves service on the line, which is heavily subsidized.
Wilson told the IBJ that "subsidizing the preservation of Amtrak’s Hoosier State Line is not the best use of Indy’s taxpayer dollars in light of the line’s current low ridership and inefficiency, as well as the significant repairs needed at Union Station—which accommodates both train and bus traffic.”
She said only about 319 passengers use the line per week in and out of Indianapolis. That’s about 80 per trip, she said.
Zier told IBJ that Indianapolis’ participation is not a deal-killer.
“There are other avenues to follow, and we are going to follow those,” he said.
He said he’s working with legislators, who can help connect INDOT with private-sector funding and who could work in the 2015 General Assembly to provide dedicated funds for the future.
Zier said he’s also talking with Corridor Capital, the Chicago-based firm that INDOT chose to take over the Amtrak service, about “skin in the game.”
The cost of continuing the service with Corridor would be $4.1 million with about half coming from INDOT’s general fund and half coming from communities on the route. Crawfordsville, Lafayette, West Lafayette, Tippecanoe County and Rensselaer are pitching in, Zier said.
Dyer, which is also on the route, also declined to pitch in, Zier said.
Indiana is the only state that has turned to local governments to help pick up the tab for passenger rail. Zier said that he realizes it also serves people who don’t live directly along the route.
“I’m not down and out because Indianapolis isn’t going to contribute $300,000,” Zier said.
Wilson said Indianapolis does not consider passenger rail to be “mass transit.”
“It’s important to note this Amtrak passenger line is not mass transit, and it does not contribute to the goals we aim to achieve for central Indiana with mass transit: increased connectivity and efficient access to and from Indianapolis for all of central Indiana.”
Wilson said the passenger line's 5-hour trip between Chicago and Indianapolis is too long and isn't used frequently enough to make it worth subsidizing.
"It's an inefficient way to get there," she said. "It's a long trip compared to the Megabus, which is about 3 1/2 hours on a bad day."
Wilson said about 300 passengers in Indianapolis use the service every week and the city's subsidy means taxpayers are subsidizing those trips at a rate of about $20 per rider, per trip.
Corridor Capital has promised changes, ranging from cleaner cars, modest food service, Wi-Fi, and on-time service — goals Amtrak was supposed to have reached by now in order to continue receiving state, county and city support.
Crawfordsville Mayor Todd Barton said he doubts other communities who have provided funding will be able to make up Indianapolis' share. He said it would take up to two years to make the passenger line self-sufficient.
"INDOT has worked very hard to secure this line. Indianapolis needs to step up," Barton said. "... It's in the interest of the entire state."
Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski said that without Indianapolis' financial support, "there's a very strong possibility it would mean ... the end of the Hoosier State."
Despite the funding questions, Zier remains optimistic that Corridor Capital will be able to take over the line this fall.
"I think this is going to happen. It's just a matter of getting everything to fall into place," he said.