Happening Now

Local backing for Hoosier State on display at Lafayette summit

August 23, 2013

Written By Phillip Streby

NARP Council Representative Phil Streby filed the following report from the Passenger Rail Summit that took place in downtown Lafayette, Indiana, on Wednesday (Aug. 21). We present it to you as part of our ongoing campaign to convince the Indiana Department of Transportation to commit to paying its share of the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State's operating costs in fiscal 2014 and beyond, as the first step towards bringing faster and more convenient train service, and eventually additional frequencies, to this key corridor. -- Malcolm Kenton

Indiana Senator Brandt Hershman opened the meeting of over 250 mayors, city planners, economic development agencies, state department of transportation representatives, railroad officials, manufacturing heads, and other attendees from both inside and outside Indiana. He stated, “This is an amazing example of civic engagement by people who believe passenger trains make a difference in the community. The challenge”, he asks, “is how can we make this rail service work? Other states have done it. Indiana can, too.”

Ray Lang, Chief of Government Relations, Amtrak, spoke of the federal law which now governs Amtrak, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) enacted in 2008, and specifically Section 209 which affected how routes less than 750 miles long are funded. He gave a brief history of the Hoosier Stateservice, describing its uniqueness, also comparing it a true corridor service. Elaborating on the idea of a true corridor, he offered examples of the successes other state programs have had with their services, specifically mentioning Virginia’s admission that they can’t afford to build new roads to alleviate traffic that could be handled more effectively with a [lower cost] train. He also spoke of the economic footprint of the Beech Grove facility, and concluded his remarks with, “What can the Hoosier State train corridor be?”

Troy Woodruff, Chief of Staff for the Indiana Department of Transportation spoke briefly about why Indiana has come ‘down to the wire’ on this issue saying they opposed this unfunded mandate by the Federal government to pay for a train previously paid with Federal dollars. Breaking down the numbers, state support now needed and current passenger count, he offered that this amounted to just over $80 per passenger subsidy, and that is not a good business model the DOT is willing to support. (Every speaker and questioner from this point on countered this approach.)

A nine member panel of government, student government, and business leaders eloquently spoke on how this Hoosier State train truly benefits not only the communities along it route economically, but also how it is a vital lifeline which connects those communities to the rest of the Midwest.

Eric Angermeier, Nanshan American Advanced Aluminum Technologies, told of how foreign corporations such as his look closely at the availability of passenger rail before committing to an area.

Mayor Todd Barton of Crawfordsville, a strong advocate, and who rode the train to the conference, added that his small community serves as a focal point for an area extending as far south as Bloomington and into Illinois as it draws passengers for the train because of ample free parking and close police presence for security. He spoke of the current problems with the train adding, “Our approach in our community is you don’t throw something away because you don’t like it. Our younger generation sees the value of passenger rail [as a means of staying connected and working while traveling], and this is the direction we need to head. Let’s …find the long-term solutions we need.”

The mayor of Beech Grove, Dennis Buckley, gave 61 million dollars worth of reasons in the form of 550 good paying jobs to keep the Hoosier State running, adding “We need to do a better job at moving people.”

The theme for Mayor John Dennis, West Lafayette, was “Two great cities, one great university, and rail.” “Rail is a marketing tool for investment, as well as enhancing quality of life for this area.”

Fred Lanahan, President of the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association, and board chair at Citilink talked of the current and difficult efforts to return passenger trains to and through Fort Wayne stating there is a great interest in rail based investment. Don’t lose this train!”

Front entrance to the Lafayette, IN Amtrak depot. Photo by Flickr.com user Chris Harnish.
Front entrance to the Lafayette, IN Amtrak depot. Photo by Flickr.com user Chris Harnish.

Micah Matlock, President, Purdue University Student Senate, said that one third of Purdue University’s student body is made up of foreign students. They bring a lot of money (currently estimated by Purdue at $44,354 per student) into the area, and the train is their lifeline to home via Chicago’s international airports. Additionally, there are even more out-of-state students who bring in even more money. The train does and will “enhance efforts to retain that talent, once educated.”

Tippecanoe County Commissioner Tom Murtaugh reiterated the economic benefits provided by the train, adding that the potential could be even more with improved service.

Mayor Tony Roswarski of Lafayette described the efforts and the money being spent to improve downtown Lafayette and connect it across the river with West Lafayette emphasizing that the long-term plan centers on investment. The global market looks at the quality of life an area provides and demands improved passenger rail as a major part of that quality of life.

Mayor Stephen Wood of Rensselaer proudly spoke of the new Amtrak station being dedicated today, and the improved access provided. He also stated that this station draws passengers from as far as Illinois, and this, coupled with the local college, suggests significant economic gain for his community.

Tim Hoeffner, Director of the Office of Rail for the Michigan Department of Transportation, and Vice Chair for the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission gave a well-received presentation on how and why passenger rail has been developed in Michigan and continues to be improved. Surprisingly, it was, and continues to be because of economic reasons, not passenger reasons. He said that improvements and support to rail provided returns to Michigan in excess of the monies spent because of the enhanced economies along the several corridors. He illustrated several examples of efforts, both early and recent, of improved or new station facilities. He talked of how simple adjustments to the Blue Water schedule after Toronto service ended nearly doubled patronage without spending any additional money. He emphasized how early efforts to save money on the Grand Rapids route by reducing service to four days a week resulted in a tremendous loss of passengers which took eight years to regain. This, he went on, is not the way to handle such an important link in any state’s transportation chain. Further, “Our trains are sold out, often months in advance, otherwise our return on investment would be even greater. More equipment is key to ridership…, which is growing and demanding more. We have reduced the cost per passenger even while adding schedules and speed.”

(Michigan holds part of a group order for bi-level cars being build at a plant in Rochelle, Illinois. As owner of this equipment, they are concerned about maintenance and heavy overhaul if Beech Grove service is reduced or lost.)

Arvid Olson, Greater Lafayette Commerce and Quality of Life Council and organizer for this summit, holding a smart phone gave a very graphic example of why the younger generation prefers public transportation. “They don’t drive. They don’t buy a house, but they do communicate! The number one item they want to own is a smart phone. They want to live in smaller cities, but want to be near larger cities. This is our challenge. We need to enhance passenger rail. We need to preserve this route and improve it. We need a much-improved schedule to reduce train time and provide a better ride experience. Rail service is a hallmark of developed countries with an emphasis on commuter and high-speed rail as well as safety and on time performance. Quality passenger service is as much about numbers as it is about budgets.

Randy Truit of the Indiana House of Representatives closed the summit and received a warm round of applause with a final remark, which perfectly summarize everyone (outside of INDOT):

“This is about investment, not subsidy.”

-- Report by Phil Streby