So, you’ve probably heard about the debate over plans to build a commuter rail line between Noblesville and Franklin.
But that isn’t the only debate going on about trains in Indiana.
Advocates of a high-speed rail network across the Midwest are gearing up to lobby Gov. Mitch Daniels and lawmakers to help them collect what could be hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers over several years. The money, along with more than $1 billion in federal stimulus dollars, would pay for three stretches of high-speed rail connecting Indiana to other states.
Hoosiers, on trains going about 110 mph, could travel from Indianapolis to Chicago in 2 hours and 41 minutes. Yes, that’s only about 20 minutes less than by car, but minus the traffic headaches and carbon emissions.
In theory, the rail lines would connect to destinations that include Chicago; Cincinnati; Cleveland; Madison, Wis.; St. Louis; Detroit; and Minneapolis.
That’s in theory, because two newly elected Republican governors are threatening to return millions of dollars in federal funds for rail, possibly disrupting a major part of the planned Midwest network linking 11 cities within 400 miles of Chicago.
Both Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio are riding a wave of voter opposition to higher taxes, government-backed services and causes supported by President Barack Obama, including high-speed rail.
And so the whole thing may be a long shot, rail advocates admit. But they see little choice but to try.
At stake are about 4,500 new jobs in Indiana, the environment and potentially billions of dollars in economic development.
“Indiana is a follower on high- speed rail,” Roger Sims, president of the Indiana High Speed Rail Association, said Friday during a summit of rail advocates at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
Illinois, after applying for and getting $1.1 billion in federal stimulus dollars, is building a high-speed rail line right now. Meanwhile, Wisconsin and Michigan have applied for federal funds and have made their own investments in Amtrak passenger rail.
Indiana hasn’t done nearly that much.
The state invests little in Amtrak and has only one federally funded rail project in the works to clear up congestion on tracks in Northwest Indiana that passenger and freight trains share.
“What priority has Indiana put on high-speed rail?” asked Mark Dobson, president of the Warsaw-Kosciusko Chamber of Commerce, drawing a cynical laugh from the audience at IUPUI. “Right. None. High-speed rail is not a priority in Indiana. It’s not on the radar, and we need it to be.”
In many ways, their efforts — and gripes — mirror those of mass-transit supporters in Central Indiana.
Indianapolis lags far behind other cities when it comes to bus service, too.
Under consideration is a $2.4 billion transit plan that triples the number of buses on the streets and adds commuter rail lines that would run north and south of Indianapolis.
The hope of those backing the plan, a quasi-governmental group called IndyConnect, is to persuade the General Assembly to put a referendum before voters on raising taxes to pay for the plan.
That has been met with lukewarm enthusiasm at best.
Daniels’ spokeswoman, Jane Jankowski, said the governor thinks transit, in general, is an issue worth exploring, but “you have to approach it with care.”
Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Friday that he doesn’t know much about plans for high-speed rail but would be willing to listen.
He also said he would be willing to talk about a referendum for Central Indiana’s transit plan. But with the state of the economy and budget deficit, he’s concerned that the state has more pressing financial issues at the moment.
“Is this the priority that the public will go out on a referendum and vote for?” Kenley asked.
Both IndyConnect and the Indiana High Speed Rail Association are counting on support from private business leaders. The association is developing a plan that would show the economic benefits of high-speed rail.
The goal is to get enough support to raise money for three separate high-speed lines and rail cars.
One, at a cost of about $200 million to taxpayers, would connect lines from Chicago to Cleveland. Two others — from Chicago through Indianapolis to Cincinnati, and another along Lake Michigan from Chicago — don’t have a price tag yet.
“We really need businesses to be part of this equation,” Sims said, adding, “We haven’t reached a critical mass yet.”
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