(Still) workin’ on the railroad

A committee tasked with finding a solution to the traffic backup created when Indiana & Louisville trains roll through Columbus plans to ask the city to spend up to $125,000 to hire a consultant to study ways to alleviate the problem.

The Railroad Project Community Committee will bring a request to the Columbus Redevelopment Commission during a special meeting at 4 p.m. Wednesday to suggest the city enter into a contract with American Structurepoint Inc., the Indianapolis engineering firm selected to study the railroad issues.

The Louisville & Indiana Railroad plans to increase its traffic through Columbus from about two to three trains a day up to 15 trains a day this year, said John Dorenbusch, redevelopment commission vice president and a member of the railroad project steering committee. CSX Transportation plans to invest up to $100 million to complete the project.

The current train traffic causes backups in Columbus city traffic, particularly along State Road 46 on the city’s west side. Dorenbusch said he has heard complaints about traffic being backed up from the State Road 46 railroad crossing all the way to the stores and restaurants located along Merchants Mile just inside Interstate 65.

The city has been discussing the possibility of developing a way to reduce that traffic backup for several years, but now that the railroad wants to increase its traffic through Columbus, Dorenbusch said the city needs to act immediately to keep traffic congestion from getting worse.

“Don’t underestimate how far behind we are,” he said.

If the redevelopment commission agrees to the contract, Structurepoint will study the current and proposed rail traffic in Columbus, as well as the resulting traffic problems, and develop options to help motorists avoid passing trains.

The committee issued a Request for Proposals on March 14 to find a consultant for the project and received four responses.

A subcommittee consisting of Dorenbusch, planning director Jeff Bergman, redevelopment director Heather Pope, executive director of public works and city engineer Dave Hayward and George Dutro, a citizen committee member, reviewed the proposals and decided to ask two companies — Structurepoint and Columbus-based Strand Associates, Inc. — to interview for the project.

Structurepoint ultimately was selected because it has more in-house services, such as a financial consultant who could complete an economic analysis for the railroad project, Hayward said.

Additionally, Structurepoint has a better capacity to make presentations about the project in a way that interested residents would understand, Dutro said.

Structurepoint’s proposed cost for the project was $75,000 to $125,000, depending on the work that will be involved.

Right now, the city has no proposed plan to circumvent increased railroad traffic, Dorenbusch said, so Structurepoint’s task will be to help the city develop that plan.

In addition to the State Road 46 crossing, three other crossings in Bartholomew County could cause major traffic back-ups once rail traffic is increased — Indianapolis Road, 200 South near the Bartholomew County fairgrounds and 450 South near the Bartholomew County landfill, Pope said.

Bartholomew County commissioner Rick Flohr, a member of the railroad community committee, questioned whether the city could develop a plan to create a better flow of traffic in enough time, especially considering the fact that Louisville & Indiana is already moving forward with the project.

Dorenbusch conceded that the committee’s efforts are coming in late but also said there was an aggressive timeline that calls for committee members to review data, conduct public meetings and discuss proposed alternatives for the railroad issue by Aug. 31.

In the meantime, the railroad committee also is searching for ways to slow Indiana & Louisville’s progress, although there are few options available in that regard, Dorenbusch said.

Hayward said he had reviewed a report CSX submitted to the Surface Transportation Board that gives the company permission to move forward with the line improvement project and had found a few holes in its plan for Columbus.

For instance, the railroad said it did not expect its increased traffic would affect the Columbus Fire Department’s ability to respond to an emergency call because there are multiple stations on the west side of the tracks, so one of the stations could cover for the other if an engine were blocked by a passing train.

However, Hayward said that claim is not necessarily true because different fire equipment is stored at different stations, and it is impossible to know what equipment will be needed in any given situation, so the railroad company cannot accurately make that blanket statement.

Additionally, the plan shows that the level of service — or the ability to move traffic through the streets — at the crossings at 11th Street, Eighth Street and State Road 46 will decrease to a grade C, which the railroad company finds acceptable. However, Hayward said he always strives for levels of service at grades A or B in Columbus, so the increased train traffic would negatively impact that standard.

If the contract is approved, Structurepoint will be tasked with addressing those and other concerns Hayward found in CSX’s report, as well as completing its own traffic counts and studies to develop the best solutions to the traffic problems impacting Columbus commuters.

About the Louisville & Indiana plan

CSX Transportation plans to invest up to $100 million to make improvements to railroads owned by the Louisville & Indiana Railroad company to increase the number of freight trains that can run along its lines each day, including ones that run through Columbus.

The changes would allow the railroad company to run trains up to 7,500 feet long, compared to 5,100 feet now, and travel up to 49 mph, compared to 15 to 25 mph now. Additionally, each train’s capacity would be increased from carrying up to 263,000 pounds of freight to carrying up to 286,000 pounds of freight.

Committee members

Members of the Railroad Project Community Committee:

  • John Dorenbusch, Columbus Redevelopment Commission vice president
  • Dave Hayward, executive director of public works and city engineer
  • Jeff Bergman, City-County Planning Department director
  • Heather Pope, Columbus Redevelopment director
  • Rick Flohr, Bartholomew County commissioner
  • Frank Jerome, Columbus City Council president
  • Jason Hester/Allie Castetter, Columbus Economic Development Board
  • Rich Freeland/Shannon Kiely-Heider, citizen participant/Cummins
  • Rich Gold, citizen participant
  • George Dutro, citizen participant
  • Jesse Brand, citizen participant
  • Rick Johnson, citizen participant
  • Tom Vujovich, citizen participant

Although the railroad project falls under the jurisdiction of the city redevelopment office, it is not considered a subcommittee of the redevelopment commission.

If you go

Special meeting of the Columbus Redevelopment Commission

  • When: 4 p.m. Wednesday
  • Where: City Council chambers of Columbus City Hall, 123 Washington St.
  • What: Special meeting of the redevelopment commission to vote on a contract for the railroad project
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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.