Monday, April 22, 2013

We could lose passenger rail service

Posted By on Mon, Apr 22, 2013 at 9:00 AM

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There was a time when, if you wanted to travel from Indianapolis to Chicago, there were several trains that could take you on a daily basis. These trains had wonderfully poetic names, names imbued with the magic of departing and arrivals. There was the South Wind and the Sycamore, the Kentuckian and the Indianapolis Special. There was even a train named for Indiana's most famous poet, James Whitcomb Riley.

But that was long ago. Today, the only train that will take you to Chicago is called the Hoosier State. It runs four days a week, and takes three and a half hours to go from station to station, provided it doesn't have to wait for a freight train to pass.

So much for progress.

Amtrak is responsible for passenger rail service between Indianapolis and Chicago. As meager as that service has become, it could go away altogether if the Indiana State Legislature doesn't immediately agree to allocate funding to support it.

Right now, the Hoosier State train is funded by the federal government to the tune of about $4 million a year. The feds, however, have announced that, as of Oct. 1, they will stop funding Amtrak routes shorter than 750 miles. That means Indiana has to pick up the slack, or lose its Indianapolis-Chicago passenger route.

Earlier this month, an Amtrak representative with a name almost as magical-sounding as one of those used for the trains of yesteryear visited the Indiana Statehouse. Charlie Monte Verde reportedly told state legislators they have a decision to make: "The time is essentially now if you want to have passenger rail as part of your transportation system."

So here, in the midst of trying to protect factory farmers from whistle-blowers, and making it harder for women to protect their bodies, comes this hot potato of an ultimatum regarding the future of transportation in Indiana.

Yikes.

It's not as if Indiana is being blind-sided by this news. People have been trying to get a conversation going here about improving our passenger rail service for years. There's been a movement afoot, for example, to create a Midwest high-speed rail network linking Indianapolis with cities like Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. Neighboring states have invested in doing studies and upgrading track in order to make themselves competitive for federal grants.

Meanwhile, Indiana, the reputed "Crossroads of America," has willfully remained aloof. When Gov. Mitch Daniels leased the Northwest Tollway for Major Moves, creating a windfall of $2.6 billion for the state's transportation budget, there was hope some of this money might be allocated for investment in modes of transport other than cars and trucks.

Didn't happen. Major Moves wound up being a major tribute to the internal combustion engine, shoring up worn and degraded automotive infrastructure and creating 104 new roadways. Those who claim that the problem with rail is that it doesn't pay for itself might reflect on how the state will pay to maintain these new and existing roads now that the Major Moves money is in the rearview mirror.

Advocates for highway spending will argue that these roads carry the commerce Indiana depends on. True enough. But have you driven Interstate 65 between Chicago and Indy lately? The truck traffic is enough to make your axles quake. This is not a bad thing, but its sustainability is doubtful. Not only does it make road maintenance a perpetual headache, it also pollutes the environment and makes our economy even more dependent on fossil fuels.

But, you say, Amtrak carries passengers, not freight. Right. Trouble is, if Indiana doesn't pony up the dough to keep our passenger service up to speed, there's a good chance we could lose a significant share of our freight trains too. That's because freight-hauler CSX owns the tracks and dispatches the trains between Chicago and Indianapolis. If Indiana walks away from that route, CSX could lose the incentive to upgrade its line.

And Indiana could lose jobs, that word all Hoosier politicians love to whisper to themselves as they go to sleep at night (or during committee meetings, in many cases). Amtrak's largest maintenance facility is in Beech Grove. The place employs 550 people; the annual payroll is $49 million. You'd think these numbers alone would be enough to make an Indiana investment in Amtrak a no-brainer. Those numbers could actually grow if we made ourselves Amtrak-friendly, for a change.

Ultimately, though, the future, with a capital 'F,' is the biggest reason why Indiana needs to step up and allocate money for Amtrak passenger service. In case you haven't noticed, it's the 21st century. Everywhere else, people are working to limit their dependence on gas guzzling vehicles. A major part of the human project is about trying to figure out ways to make going places easier, cleaner, more efficient. Deciding to write passenger rail service out of this state's transportation plan will not only isolate Indiana from the rest of the country, it will be like sealing the state in a cube of smoggy amber.

The deadline for Indiana's decision on passenger rail service is Oct. 1. But the Legislature only meets for another week. We need to get this done. Now.

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