Support for Amtrak line high, but so is cost to keep it running
By Matt Mikus email@example.com August 21, 2013 7:36PM
State Sen. Brant Hershman speaks to a crowd of rail passenger supporters Wednesday. INDOT will decide soon whether to end the Hoosier State line operating from Indianapolis to Chicago or to pay at least $3 million to keep the service in operation. | Matt Mikus/Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 23, 2013 2:32PM
LAFAYETTE — More than 275 people gathered Wednesday to hear a panel of experts discuss the pros and cons of maintaining passenger train service between Indianapolis and Chicago.
Amtrak officials and passenger rail advocates explained potential benefits to the state, while state legislators and transportation experts warned about high costs.
In October, the Indiana Department of Transportation will decide whether to keep, expand or end the rail service between Indianapolis and Chicago, known as the Hoosier State line. A study conducted by the department is scheduled to be released in September, and will look at costs and benefits of either ending or expanding the service.
In 2012, the federal government decided it would no longer fund trips under 750 miles after Oct. 1. Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, offered an amendment to the state budget earlier this year that offers INDOT the authority to decide the future of the Hoosier State.
Ray Lang, Amtrak’s chief of state relations, said that if the state decided to continue services, the federal train corporation would cover about 20 percent of the operating costs. To keep the current service would cost the state about $3 million annually.
Opening the panel discussion, Lang said demand for passenger service has grown. Over the past 10 years, ridership has grown by 77 percent, he said.
But taxpayer dollars, Hershman said, should not support a poor service. The current rail system takes five hours and is not as efficient as other options. A bus ticket comparable in cost would arrive two hours earlier. Airlines offer more departure choices, up to 14 one-way flights a day, compared to one round trip from Indianapolis to Chicago each day.
“I say this not to be discouraging,” Hershman said, “but to use it as a thought-provoking opportunity to brainstorm what effective rail service could and should look like.”
INDOT chief of staff Tony Woodruff said they were against the federal decision requiring states to pay. Current operations would require $80.02 in state subsidies per passenger.
“That is not a business model that we would choose to invest in,” Woodruff said, but INDOT could be a contributing partner if local governments are willing to chip in.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said more trips and faster service would require more funds from the state, but the average amount per passenger for subsidies would decrease as ridership increases.
Discontinuing the line could have a negative economic impact for Indiana. The Hoosier State brings equipment and cars for repair to Beech Grove, near Indianapolis, home to Amtrak’s 300-acre maintenance facility with 550 employees.
“It would be devastating,” Beech Grove Mayor Dennis Buckley said, if the Chicago-Indianapolis line were terminated.
Panel members representing business and local governments along the Hoosier State route also pointed to the valuable connection to Chicago and its international airport, as well as to the reduction in pollution and congestion along Interstate 65.
“Almost daily you read about a serious wreck on I-65 in the paper,” Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski said. “We need to give this an opportunity to make the investment.”
INDOT will have until the end of September to determine whether it will increase service, keep the status quo, or end the line.