Study finds rail-with-trail idea much costlier than trail-only plan, Fishers says

The city of Fishers has released a study that says constructing a trail on the Nickel Plate Railroad corridor would be significantly costlier if the development maintained a rail line alongside the trail.

The study, released late Friday, said a rail-with-trail plan would cost at least $20 million more than a plan that simply replaces the tracks with a trail.

Fishers, Noblesville and Hamilton County leaders announced in February 2017 they would convert the Nickel Plate Railroad into a 9.2-mile pedestrian trail. While Noblesville has yet to begin planning or designing its portion of the trail, Fishers has already lined up financing for the first phase within the city’s limits. This week, the city also unveiled a master plan for the 4.5-mile path.

The trail’s first and most expensive segment in Fishers is expected to cost about $9 million, but a total cost estimate has not been released. Early on, city officials said it would cost at least $9.3 million just to lay the asphalt for the entire stretch of the trail.

Mayor Scott Fadness told IBJ his administration decided early in the trail’s planning phase not to study a rail-with-trail option—which opponents have called for since early 2017—because planners knew it would require significant and costly land acquisition.

But the group Save the Nickel Plate and its supporters continued to call on leaders to consider the option and study its feasibility.

The city said it commissioned a feasibility study on the rail-with-trail option in response.

The study, performed by Indianapolis-based Butler, Fairman & Seufert Inc. and completed this month, considered two rail-with-trail options. Option A would create an offset path that would keep the rail line in place, while Option B would re-center the entire corridor within the right-of-way and build the trail along the realigned track—considered a best practice for rail-with-trail corridors.

Option A would add $20.5 million to the total cost, while Option B would increase the cost by nearly $40 million, the study found. Those estimates don’t include what it would cost to repair, replace and upgrade the rail line in order for it to become active again, the city said in a news release.  

The cost breakdown for Option A includes:

— $16.9 million for 82 whole or partial property acquisitions along the rail corridor with 13 buildings being demolished;

— $1.2 million for the addition of a 6-foot safety fence between the trail and the tracks, which is a standard requirement of both Amtrak and Chicago South Shore Railroads within the state, and therefore, recommended for this corridor;

— $300,0000 for retention wall construction;

— $900,000 for additional pedestrian bridges over major waterways.

The cost breakdown for Option B includes:

— $17.9 million for property impact;

— $2.1 million for pedestrian bridges over major waterways;

— $1.4 million for rail bridges over major waterways (if the track were to be used for freight);

— $600,000 for trail embankment and ditches;

— $2.4 million for security fencing;

— $15.4 million to re-center the track.

Fadness said those opposed to the city’s plans have made it seem like it would be fairly easy and inexpensive to pursue a rail-with-trail plan, but the study shows that’s not the case.

“The city still stands by its policy decision to pursue development of the Nickel Plate Trail without rail,” city officials said in written comments.

Save the Nickel Plate released a statement Monday morning that said the organization has commissioned its own privately funded feasibility study of a rail-with-trail option. Leaders expect the plan to be released in the next 45 days and said they are eager to compare its results to those of the study released by Fishers.

The organization said it has “grave concerns" about the Fishers report” and said the study presents information that conflicts with previous information offered by the city. The Fishers study, for example, includes right-of-way diagrams for the project that range from 60 feet to 75 feet, but the "Frequently Asked Questions" page on the Nickel Plate Trail website, hosted by city and county leaders, states that industry standards require 120 feet or more of right-of-way.

The study also assumed the existing rail line is not in adequate condition for regular use, but Save the Nickel Plate maintains that’s not the case.

“Save the Nickel Plate maintains that the public can only make good decisions when provided with good information,” Save the Nickel Plate said in written comments. “Since we cannot count on elected officials to provide taxpayers with a fair analysis, Save the Nickel Plate has partnered with other entities to commission its own analysis that is currently underway.”

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