Feds give Fishers, Noblesville green light to convert rail to trail

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Owners of the Nickel Plate Railroad in Hamilton County were granted federal permission Thursday to convert a portion of the corridor into a pedestrian trail.

The determination from the Federal Surface Transportation Board confirmed that Fishers, Noblesville and Hamilton County have legal authority to move forward with the trail.

Last July, officials who control the 37-mile railroad corridor voted to move forward with a plan to convert a 9.2-mile stretch of the railroad into a 14-foot-wide multi-use pathway. Under the plan, the Nickel Plate Trail, estimated to cost $9 million to develop, will run from 96th Street in Fishers to Pleasant Street in Noblesville. Developing the trail requires removing the tracks.

"This determination confirms the owners have legal authority to proceed with rail banking the entire line, which runs from Indianapolis to Tipton," the city of Fishers said Thursday in a written statement. "The owners will continue working with the [FSTB] to complete the rail banking process and to finalize a trails use agreement, which will provide communities along the line with the opportunity to convert rail to trail within their jurisdiction."

Once the process is complete, the city of Fishers plans to immediately pursue the conversion of the Nickel Plate line to a trail from 96th Street to 146th Street. The city on Wednesday released the names of the representatives picked to serve on the Nickel Plate Trail Master Planning Committee, who will be charged with facilitating its development.

Next month, the city plans to issue a request for proposals for the trail.

While Noblesville and Fishers officials plan to convert the rail line into a trail, communities in northern Hamilton County are working to preserve it as a train track for tourism purposes.

Last month, the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority, which manages the 37 miles of rail track from Tipton to 10th Street in Indianapolis, announced it had signed a 15-year operating agreement with Nickel Plate Heritage Railroad Inc. to run a tourism rail line on 12 miles of track between Atlanta and Noblesville.

Operations are expected to begin sometime this summer.

The rail line once carried freight and passenger trains, but most recently has been used only for the Indiana State Fair Train, which was operated by the Indiana Transportation Museum. The train, which carried passengers from the northern suburbs to the fairgrounds, ceased operations in 2016 after some of the volunteers running the train alleged that the tracks and signals were unsafe.

The rail-banking process is likely to trigger a a federal lawsuit on behalf of property owners along the corridor. Stewart, Wald + McCulley LLC, which has offices in Kansas City and St. Louis, has already started talking to landowners along the railroad about their rights as property owners and is prepared to file a lawsuit against the federal government if and when the rail banking request is approved.

Fishers, Noblesville and Hamilton County share control of the corridor, but property owners adjacent to it actually own the land underneath the tracks, according to Steve Wald, partner at at the law firm.

Wald told IBJ in October that if the federal government allows local entities to change the use of the land, doing so violates the rights of those property owners, entitling them to a settlement.

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