INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Thousands of Hoosiers could see more trains – and longer wait times – if two rails companies earn the federal government’s approval to upgrade a 106-mile stretch of track that runs between Indianapolis and Louisville.
That blessing could come in the next month or two. And it could mean some areas of Indiana would see up to 15 trains per day.
Supporters argue the long-term effects will lead to jobs and improved economic development in central and southern Indiana. But opponents – both residents and at least one elected leader – worry the increased number of trains could lead to bigger inconveniences and even threaten public safety.
Under the project that still needs the approval of the Surface Transportation Board, railroad giant CSX wants to spend up to $100 million to upgrade the tracks – replacing shorter sections with longer, fused rail. Currently, the trains along the Louisville-Indiana Railroad have weight restrictions of less than 263,000 pounds and are limited to traveling no faster than 25 miles per hour – figures that are well under industry standards, according to John Goldman, President of the Louisville-Indiana railroad.
The rail improvements would mean CSX could share the line with the L&I Railroad. It would also mean trains would be able to travel as fast as 49 miles per hour in certain areas and cars could carry loads closer to 286,000 pounds, Goldman said.
“For us to be on the grid and make a viable connection between Indianapolis and Louisville that railroad has to be upgraded. And we need to get to a bigger rail where we can run heavier cars as well as faster trains,” Goldman said. “What that means is our customers can put more into a rail car which makes them more marketable and attractive to receivers on the other end.”
Communities like Columbus, Indiana would see the greatest net increase of trains. Currently, the city averages about two trains per day, according to project documents. But if the massive rail upgrade project is approved by the Surface Transportation Board in early January or February, Columbus would see as many as 17 trains per day.
Areas like Indianapolis and Seymour would also see increases of 13 trains per day.
Part of the plan includes replacing the Flatrock River Bridge in Columbus and building train “sidings” near Columbus and Franklin that will allow trains to pass each other. Goldman says the project will likely be built in phases: Seymour and south to Louisville, followed by the section of track in Seymour north towards Indianapolis. The final phase might involve the replacement of the Flatrock River Bridge, although early design work could begin sooner, Goldman said.The project is expected to take almost seven years to complete.
While the changes wouldn’t occur overnight, Columbus is already making a contingency plan to build what could be an expensive overpass to help alleviate the projected traffic headaches associated with an increase of 15 trains per day.
Mayor Kristen Brown says the area where trains cross State Road 46 can become a “choke point” for traffic. The state road is a main artery that carries traffic between east and west Columbus.
“We’ve very concerned about it. We’re concerned not only from an inconvenience standpoint with the congestion but a public safety standpoint as well,” Brown said.
Adam Hoskins, the EMS manager for Columbus Regional Hospital, said he thought emergency personnel would be able to adapt to the increased train traffic, but acknowledged that ambulance response times could be affected.
“Well, we are going to have to do some studies when the trains plan on coming through, the length of the trains, how it’s going to delay transports – possibly to the hospital or getting an ambulance to a patient,” he said.
By the end of the month, the Indiana Department of Transportation is supposed to complete a cost estimate for building an overpass in Columbus.
Will Wingfield, an INDOT spokesman, says the area presents some “unique design challenges” because the rail line intersects with state road 46 in a flood plain and is in close proximity to two one-way bridges that carry traffic in and out of downtown Columbus.
Jason Hester, the executive director of the Columbus Economic Development Board, said the benefits far outweigh the costs.
“From an economic development standpoint, we see it as a good thing,” Hester told I-Team 8 in a recent interview. “So when we are talking about trying to attract a new business to the community, 1 out of 4 … if not 1 out of 3… have a preference for rail.”
Hester admitted while manufacturing jobs in other markets have declined in the post-Recession economy, Columbus’ job base still largely centers around manufacturing.
“So we see (this) as helping the community,” Hester said.
But others still have concerns. Columbus residents interviewed by I-Team 8 worried who would pay for the construction of an overpass.
“I think it would be quite expensive, I don’t know who would fund that?” said Ed Staples, a long-time Columbus resident.
His wife, Linda, worried that taxpayers might end up footing the bill for the overpass caused by a largely privately-funded project.
“They should make it convenient for us, we live here. I just don’t think taxpayers should have to pay for it,” Linda Staples said.
But the chances of CSX or the Louisville-Indiana railroad contributing to building the overpass are highly unlikely.
“We will support the idea in anyway that we can. As far as a financial contribution, we typically don’t contribute much if any to those types of projects. We will give them our full support,” said Staples.
In a statement to I-Team 8, a CSX spokeswoman hinted that the rail company would likely not invest in the overpass.
“CSX is making an investment in infrastructure that will continue to be owned by the LIRC. Questions regarding projects related to the LIRC’s right of way, such as the potential overpass project you noted below, should be directed to the LIRC,” Kristin Seay wrote in an email.