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Should Indiana Spend More On Alternative Transportation?

The state is reviewing its options for keeping the Amtrak line from Chicago to Indianapolis running after federal funding runs out October 1.

Amtrak train on tracks.

Photo: Jack Snell (Flickr)

Federal funding for the Hoosier State Line will end October 1.

The Hoosier State rail line carries about 37,000 people from Indianapolis to Chicago each year, but its future is in jeopardy as the state and Amtrak try to work out a deal to pay for it.

In 2008, Congress enacted the Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act (PRIIA). It set a deadline of Oct. 1, 2013 to turn over financial responsibility of routes less than 750 miles over to the states. The Hoosier State line from Chicago to Indianapolis is just shy of 200 miles.

So Indiana needs to come up with $3 million to cover the cost of the train’s annual operating expenses.

“We’re willing to be part of the pie, just not the whole pie,” says Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Will Wingfield.

Right now, the train only leaves Indianapolis one time a day, four days a week. Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday the Hoosier State leaves Indianapolis at 6 a.m. Just before midnight another train arrives back in Indianapolis.

On a recent Tuesday, Amtrak engineer Bruce Franks rode the train down. The trip from Chicago took five hours which is a couple hours longer than it would have taken to drive it, but Franks says train travel offers a lot of advantages over driving or flying.

“I’m 6’4, 300 pounds, a lineman-built person, and I took a train,” he says. “Me and my lady took a train out to California and enjoyed it. Didn’t have to worry about driving. Didn’t have to worry about being cramped on an airplane.”

Train ridership in Indiana is growing and breaking records. According to Amtrak ridership has increased 77 percent in the last decade and July 2013 was the best month in the line’s history.

One thing nearly everyone can agree upon is if you improve the service and increase the frequency of the trains, more people will ride it.  That would generate more ticket revenue which would in turn would decrease the amount the government needs to pay. But adding a second route, or making the trains faster, or adding WiFi, costs money.

The Costs And Benefits Of Amtrak In Indiana

INDOT released the Cost Benefit Analysis on Thursday. The study examined four route improvement scenarios. The costs associated with those ranged from nearly $4 million a year to $10 million, and infrastructure improvement options totaling more than $230 million.

But the options would presumably increase ridership so the subsidy per passenger would drop from about $80 where it is now to between $32 and $42 depending on the option.

“So for Hoosier State, the best thing Indiana could do is to keep the service. And have two trains a day instead of one train. So your investment would go from say $3 million to $5 million or $6 million. Even with that, it’s such a small small portion of the state’s overall budget to transportation,” says Maloney.

Coming up with that money is not simple, Wingfield says.

“There’s not a go to fund for these types of things necessarily and that’s the thing that we’re grappling with in terms of where are the funds supposed to come from for something like this,” says Will Wingfield, a spokesperson with the Indiana Department of Transportation.

But earlier this year the legislature authorized INDOT to spend the money to keep the rail going. It just didn’t mandate it.

“I think it was an expression of the legislative intent that they wanted this to happen,” says Tim Maloney, a senior policy advisor with the Hoosier Environmental Council.

But time is running out. Of the 19 states affected by the loss of federal money, Indiana is the only one in the Midwest still negotiating with Amtrak .

“I think we have been particularly slow, and I think on all of the state’s parts they just haven’t dealt with it as readily as they should have,” Maloney says.

Amtrak By The Numbers

Here’s how current subsidy per passenger breaks down.

The Hoosier States Line’s annual expenses are about $3.87 million. Last year it carried about 37,000 passengers. If each passenger’s ticket costs $24, that’s translates into ticket revenues totaling just less than $900,000. That means the state would have to kick in about $80 to subsidize each passenger ticket.

“We’re looking to maximize revenue to help make the service sustainable,” says Wingfield.

But with all the improvement options outlined in the cost/benefit analysis the cost does outweigh the economic benefit.

INDOT’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year is just more than $2 billion. The state spends about 3 percent of that on alternative forms of transportation – largely mass transit.

Data from Greater Lafayette Commerce shows between 2000 and 2009 Indiana invested $150,000 in passenger rail. Ohio by comparison, invested $284,085,000. Illinois was just behind that at $241,314,314.

“It’s been a low priority for the state of Indiana for a long time,” says Maloney. “It’s not just any particular administration or INDOT leadership, it’s just been the tradition. We’ve been focused first and foremost on roads. Other forms of transportation take a back seat, all the way in the back of the bus.”

“We subsidize roads to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars,” says State Rep. Christina Hale, D-Indianapolis. “Subsidizing passenger rail in order to build our future is a smart move.”

Sara Wittmeyer

Sara Wittmeyer is the News Bureau Chief for WFIU and WTIU. Sara has more than a decade of experience as a news reporter and previously served with KBIA at the University of Missouri, WNKU at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY, and at WCPO News in Cincinnati.

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  • Eric Shawver

    Somehow I think the INDOT has it’s priorities a bit fouled up. They’re planning to spend $6 million for about 6 miles of road “improvements” to an ol country road that leads to Yellowwood State Forest in Brown County. Yes, that’s right—a million dollars per mile for a road that no one who lives here wants and only gets used a little by bass fishermen on the weekends. We’re trying to get it stopped, but the county and INDOT will not listen.

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