Passenger rail study gets fed approval

Baker Street Station in downtown Fort Wayne would serve as the local hub for a potential Columbus to Chicago passenger rail corridor.

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A study that eventually could bring passenger rail service back to Fort Wayne now has federal and state backing.

Federal Railroad Administration officials decided a $350,000 alternatives analysis and public involvement process would suffice for a proposed Chicago-Fort Wayne-Columbus passenger rail corridor.

Initially, the Indiana Department of Transportation sought and failed to obtain a $2.64 million federal grant for a Tier I environmental impact study it believed the project would require.

The FRA is supporting a less expensive study because the proposed corridor already exists and had been used for passenger service until it was replaced with freight traffic in 1990.

The Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association and some mayors of cities that have worked with it on the project announced the FRA decision Dec. 19 at the renovated Baker Street Station, where trains would stop to pick up and drop off passengers.

“This is the beginning of the restoration of passenger rail service in Fort Wayne,” said Fred Lanahan, NIPRA’s board president. “We are partnering with the Federal Railroad Administration and we are now on their queue to get this done.”

Mayor David Berger, of Lima, Ohio, predicted passenger trains will be boarded between Chicago and Columbus by thousands of students who don’t have cars at colleges, and by international travelers visiting the region on business who rely on good rail service where they live.

A 2013 feasibility study projected 2.1 million riders would use the Chicago-Fort Wayne-Columbus route in 2020, and its ridership would exceed 3 million in 2040. The study estimated restoring passenger rail service to the region would generate an economic return of $1.70 for every $1 of investment it required.

Work developing the passenger rail corridor will provide employment to the region, and the additional travel it generates also will create and support jobs and businesses, said Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry.

“With the emphasis we’re now putting on riverfront development and our downtown and increasing our park system, spending millions of dollars to make Fort Wayne just a little more attractive, unquestionably rail service will add to tourism in our community,” he said.

The analysis and public input process will start early in January and be completed by late next fall. In addition to the corridor’s environmental impact, the study will cover service planning and a technical analysis for the project and examine its preliminary engineering.

It will be funded with contributions from cities and businesses along the corridor. In addition to Columbus, cities agreeing to work with Fort Wayne on environmental impact study funding included a few years ago Warsaw, Valparaiso, Plymouth and Gary in Indiana, as well as Marysville, Lima and Kenton in Ohio.

The 300-mile Chicago to Columbus project would cost $1.1 billion, or $3.7 million per mile. An economic impact study projected the spending, in addition to operation of the route, would create 26,800 jobs and add $7.1 billion in household income over 30 years.

The feasibility study commissioned with Transportation Economics and Management Systems in 2012 projected the route could be profitable within three years of its launch, running 10 trains daily charging 34 cents per mile for business-class tickets.

Moving forward with an environmental assessment for the project “is tantamount to saying that transportation officials in Washington and Indianapolis are likely to recognize and promote the next line that will connect millions of people right here with passenger rail service,” said Geoff Paddock, a NIPRA spokesman and Fort Wayne city councilman. “I believe that with the successful conclusion of this assessment … that preliminary engineering and funding could come forward to make the necessary upgrades to track, signals, highway junctions, even stations to bring passenger rail service back to Fort Wayne by early 2020.

“We are encouraged with President-elect Donald Trump because he has said that within the first 100 days of office he wants to see infrastructure built that will pass on a bipartisan basis and will invest in highways, airports, and in ports and also rail.”

The passenger rail service would be developed to accommodate trains running at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour as an initial goal, and eventually improved for incremental speed increases in the years ahead, Paddock said.

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