Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Porter County not ready to hop on high speed rail

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

A feasibility study shows plain and simple that “this will work,” but the Porter County Council still had reservations about throwing its support behind the next step toward bringing a high speed passenger rail line through Northern Indiana.

According to the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association (NIPRA), the line would pass through Porter County and stop in Valparaiso on its roughly 300-mile route from Chicago to Columbus, Ohio.

The same NIPRA group that approached the County Board of Commissioners in April about restoring the Chicago, Ft. Wayne Eastern Line, owned by CSX, returned to the County Council on Tuesday. The group is asking counties for local commitments for an environmental impact study needed for the project to continue.

The amount sought is $700,000 total which will be a local match for funds from the Department of Transportation.

Porter County’s share is figured to be $70,000. However, $50,000 has already been committed by the City of Valparaiso, and a few other partners, so the County would only have to pay $20,000, said Fred Lanahan, president of NIPRA.

Tuesday’s presentation was not an official request for funds, but to acquaint the Council with the project, Lanahan said. The County Commissioners are expected to ask the Council in the future for an appropriation.

One of the presenters, City Planner for Fort Wayne in Allen County Tom Waltz, said the idea of high speed rail started with U.S. President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and has more recently been eyed by current President Barack Obama as a driver for economic development.

The trains would move at about 110 miles per hour, Waltz said, which is “not really ‘Star ‘Trek-y’” since turn-of-the-century steam locomotives could travel at that speed.

NIPRA transportation and management consultant Richard Davis said trends show more young people are using public transportation and driving less. The line’s railheads will be in proximity to a handful of universities like Valparaiso University and Purdue Calumet in Northwest Indiana and Calumet College in St. Joseph County.

A cost-benefit analysis in the initial study, funded primarily by Allen County, show that for every $1 a community invests in the rail, it can expect to see a return of $1.71 once the rail is in full operation.

NIPRA estimates 26,800 new jobs will be created between the three states as a result and recent remarks made by a supporter indicate the expansion could generate $147 million for Northern Indiana, Davis said.

The group also told the County Council that travel time from Valparaiso to Chicago will be approximately 40 minutes, and 3 hours and 20 minutes to where the line ends east at Columbus.

To Chicago from Valparaiso would be $19 for a business fare ticket and $15 for an economy class ticket.

NICTD vs. NIPRA?

County Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, said he supports the idea of high speed rail but was interested to know who would be funding the construction for the project and who or what entity will be paying to operate the line.

Davis said it will take $4 million per mile to revamp the track for high speed rail which adds up to $1.2 billion. The funding will come from a multitude of private-public partnerships and state and federal dollars.

Waltz said Governor Mike Pence told Ft. Wayne city officials he endorses the project and wants to see if local governments can get involved. INDOT will be responsible for planning and Amtrak has been in talks to operate the line.

Biggs pointed out that Porter County gives $3.5 million a year in dues to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority (RDA), created by Indiana legislature, with one of its purposes being the West Lake Corridor expansion of the South Shore Line, operated by the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District.

He asked if giving funds to the high speed rail line would compromise the local commitments made to the NICTD expansion.

Davis said he doesn’t think that high speed rail would be a competitor with the South Shore, since its main focus is economic development. It is to revitalize communities along its route like Plymouth, Fort Wayne, Lima and Columbus.

“This will be supplementary to NICTD,” said Davis.

Biggs, who said he had served on the NICTD board for nine years, asked if the NIPRA group had received any complaints from the South Shore operator.

“None that they have verbalized to us,” said Waltz.

The RDA has however stated it is considering providing $140,000 for the high speed rail project, pending commitments from Lake County, the NIPRA group said.

Biggs also questioned if $19 for a business ticket for a one-way trip to Chicago would be affordable. Two trips a day for five days a week in a month would come to $760. The current monthly fare on the South Shore from Dunes Park Station to Millennium Station is $207.25, according to NICTD’s website.

Davis said frequent users will be entitled to discounts.

Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, expressed some of the same concerns about the project’s overall cost.

“I’m not ready to vote on this. There are a few things I want to mull,” he said. “I like the idea but it’s very costly, long-term costly.”

Whitten compared the request to the development of the Gary Airport which it was said would attract major economic development, but the project so far “has not taken off.”

Posted 7/23/2014