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11/5/2018 12:42:00 PM
Consulting group reports on passenger rail research for northern Indiana

Doug Leduc, Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

Rich Juram, president of the Northern Indiana Passenger Rail Association, used a series of rhetorical questions late last month to summarize the purpose of restoring railroad transportation to Fort Wayne.

Speaking to hundreds who showed up to support the project during an open house for at the Allen County Public Library, he asked: “How many people have driven to Chicago in the last year or so? Was that a fun drive? Was it quick and easy? And were you able to park immediately and get right to your destination and get to your meeting on time?”

“That’s why rail is such a great alternative here,” he continued. “Rail is a great new experience for that trip and it’s going to be fun. You can be productive. You can use your computer. You can take your bicycle. It’s just a great alternative and we need to work hard to make that come back.”

Juram was among the speakers offering remarks prior to an HNTB consulting group presentation on Alternatives Analysis and Public Involvement Process work it conducted in northern Indiana and northwest Ohio for a Chicago-Fort Wayne-Columbus passenger rail line.

The work must be completed before an environmental impact study can take place for construction the project would involve. In addition to Fort Wayne, required public meetings for the project took place during the last full week of October in Warsaw, Valparaiso and Lima, Ohio.

“We’ve got a full house and that really doesn’t surprise me because this morning and yesterday we had 70,000 hits on Facebook talking about this meeting,” Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry said before the presentation.

“I’ve talked to a number of the mayors between Columbus, Ohio and Chicago and I haven’t found one yet that isn’t really enthusiastic about working together to get this done,” he said.

Henry was with Gov. Eric Holcomb the day before the event. The two men discussed the passenger rail project.

“He continues to be in favor of doing some type of activity on rail,” Henry said. “Now we haven’t quite got to the federal government yet. This president’s a little bit different than our previous one, and I’m not quite sure where he stands as far as his acceptance of what we’re trying to accomplish, but we’ll cross that bridge eventually.”

The proposed passenger rail line has the support of mayors in both major political parties and will produce economic development as well as transportation benefits, said Geoff Paddock, a Fort Wayne City Council member who has supported the project and served as an NIPRA spokesman.

Paddock hopes passenger rail service uses the same Baker Street Station it used before it was discontinued in Fort Wayne. The renovated facility is in the center of the district he represents on the city council, and the project can be expected to create thousands of jobs across northern Indiana during the next couple of decades, he said.

In addition to jobs created to operate the passenger rail line and build the infrastructure for it, “certainly the service itself is looked at as a catalyst for growing the region and attracting and keeping workers in the area,” said Caron Kloser, the HNTB associate vice president and environmental planner who offered the presentation.

Some platforms and train stations previously used along the old route for passenger rail could be returned to service, such as those in Fort Wayne and Lima, Ohio, but they would need to be made wheelchair accessible, and probably would require other improvements, she said. Warsaw, Plymouth and Valparaiso would need new passenger rail stations.

“These station opportunities also present opportunities for secondary development,” Kloser said. “What we have found is that when you start to invest in this permanent type of infrastructure then you tend to attract development because they know that service is going to be there to stay, that the community’s committed to that station and to making it attractive.”

The presentation explained a purpose and need statement HNTB prepared for the project in consultation with NIPRA and the Federal Railroad Administration, as well as its route options and service alternatives analysis, and some preliminary engineering it used to arrive at cost estimates.

A case for the project was based partly on the need to alleviate traffic congestion on Indiana highways.

“We know it’s congested now,” Kloser said. ‘It’s just going to get worse because of the region’s plans to grow the economy, to grow population. That’s just going to create more demand on the highway network.”

And for passenger rail, the proposed route “is really a very, very attractive corridor and for a couple of reasons. No. 1 is that it’s a very straight corridor without a whole lot of curves, which means the train doesn’t need to slow down around curves,” she said.

It’s relatively low freight traffic compared to some of the other corridors in this area.

“And then also what we’re finding out is that the travel times are very competitive with auto, even at 79 miles an hour,” Kloser said.

The service alternatives considered included speeds of 79 mph and 110 mph for six daily round trips or four daily round trips, and the least expensive option of just two daily round trips at 79 mph.

When the analysis compared service alternatives against each other in terms of the ridership they would attract, it found four daily round trips generated significantly more demand than two daily round trips because increasing the frequency provided a better match to the travel schedules of potential customers.

Increasing the speed also made the service more attractive.

But, the amount of infrastructure improvement required for the project would rise in relation to increases in trip frequency. And offering the faster speed also would require infrastructure improvement. Both factors would increase costs while attracting more riders.

Looking at the project’s revenue and operating expense projections, the ratio where ticket and concession sales came closest to covering operating costs was associated with the four daily round trips at 110 mph and the two daily round trips at 79 mph.

The 0.79 ratio for each of those alternatives was higher than a 0.72 ratio for four daily round trips at 79 mph, 0.67 for six daily round trips at 110 mph and 0.61 for six daily round trips at 79 mph.

Capital costs for infrastructure capable of providing the four daily round trips at 110 mph came to $1.23 billion, about 37 percent more than the $898.1 million required for two daily trips at 79 mph.

“There’s still an operating deficit so there would have to be some kind of local support to cover that deficit, but that’s not unusual for passenger rail service,” Kloser said.

Infrastructure costs would include investment in track, signals, grade crossings, bridge improvements and sidings where trains can pull over and wait to be passed by another train.

HNTB’s Alternatives Analysis and Public Involvement Process work had to be completed to qualify for eventually conducting an environmental impact study that would meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

“As we get to the final environmental, a lot of the work has already been done. We’ll have to continue with that,” Pam Holocher, vice chair of NIPRA and former planning and policy director for Fort Wayne Community Development, said in an interview after the presentation.

“With that next phase, with environmental, there’s also lots more engineering, so that’s probably a $2 million project to actually get us to the point where we’re ready to start with construction, which would be in phases.”

The timing of the project’s next step will depend on funding. Federal Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program grants are available but require matching funding, Holocher said, so NIPRA is looking for the private sector or state to come up with the match.

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