Two of Columbus’ main problems are finding a sympathetic audience with a United States senator who expressed willingness to help.

Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., visited with Mayor Jim Lienhoop and Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers on Tuesday, and discussed at length impending traffic delays caused by trains coming through the city, and the negative impact that heroin and methamphetamine abuse cause in the city and county.

A Louisville & Indiana Railroad lease to CSX will result in longer, heavier and faster trains traveling through Bartholomew County and Columbus beginning in 2018. Delays in particular on the west side near State Roads 46 and 11 are expected to become an even greater headache for motorists.

Local officials are concerned about safety issues that long delays could create, among other things.

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While Tuesday’s visit was Donnelly’s first meeting with the first-year mayor, Lienhoop said Donnelly was well aware of the problem because city officials have kept his office apprised of the situation and one of his field representatives has attended meetings between the city and railroad.

“I want to try to be as helpful as I can to help solve this problem for Columbus. I’m the hired help,” Donnelly said.

Specifically, Donnelly told Lienhoop about the possibility of obtaining funds from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program.

The TIGER program provides an opportunity for the United States Department of Transportation to invest in road, rail, transit and port projects that promise to achieve national objectives, according to the DOT’s website.

Donnelly explained that a bridge project that connects Madison to Kentucky received some TIGER funds, Lienhoop said.

A package of state and federal funds may be the best plan, Donnelly said, adding that he can help in talking to the railroads to have them be a good partner.

Lienhoop said one of his primary goals in meeting with Donnelly was to make the train traffic situation as understandable as possible to the senator so he could advocate clearly and effectively on the city’s behalf during the grant-approval process.

Additionally, Lienhoop said he expressed to Donnelly that he thinks railroads have to adhere to fewer local regulations than other forms of transportation, and inquired about any possible legislation that could level that playing field.

“I felt it was a productive meeting and I am looking forward to the next step,” Lienhoop said.

Drugs “an American problem”

Like he was with the city’s train traffic problem, Donnelly was aware of the local opioid and meth problem, Myers said, because the sheriff’s department regularly communicates with Donnelly’s office about the situation.

“This is an American problem and we’re really feeling it in Indiana,” Donnelly said.

The senator said that one of his friends lost a grandson to a heroin overdose. He added that two teenage brothers from his hometown area near South Bend died after overdosing on oxycodone and alcohol.

“This is the human devastation that goes on,” Donnelly said.

“It destroys families,” he added. “We want to be all in to end this.”

The senator said he shared with Myers details about the 21st Century Cures Act, a recently passed piece of legislation that makes $1 billion worth of grants available to states to help them fight opioid abuse.

The funding will help police, firefighters and emergency medical services, Donnelly said.

Myers said he and the senator also talked about local law enforcement’s relationship with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

Donnelly said that because Indianapolis was deemed a high intensity drug-trafficking area, that creates opportunities to have more DEA agents in the area and more funding for their efforts, which will help the situation in Columbus.

The Bartholomew County Joint Narcotics Enforcement Team and DEA agents have been working together on several drug investigations directly connected to Columbus and Bartholomew County, sheriff’s deputies said. A Bartholomew County Sheriff’s deputy, assigned to the DEA as a task force officer, has been a major factor in these investigations, allowing the task force to track drugs from Bartholomew County back to the sources in Indianapolis and other areas, deputies said.

JNET is a combined unit of the sheriff’s department, Columbus Police Department and the Bartholomew County Prosecutor’s Office.

Discussion also covered changes to the asset-forfeiture program — which allows police to seize assets from drug dealers and other criminals, and can provide additional funding to local law enforcement — and the impact on the jail population as a result of a change to state law regarding Level 6 felonies. Under the revamped law, any person convicted of a Level 6 felony who is sentenced to less than one year behind bars will serve the time in the county jail rather than in a state penal facility.

Myers said he expressed the need for more mental health and addiction treatment services because the jail is not suited to be providers of such help.

With no inpatient drug-treatment program offered in Bartholomew County, local people seeking treatment must travel to Indianapolis or elsewhere for residential services.

Pull Quote

ON RAIL-CROSSING CONGESTION:

“I want to try to be as helpful as I can to help solve this problem for Columbus. I’m the hired help.”

— Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana

ON DRUG ABUSE:

“This is an American problem and we’re really feeling it in Indiana.”

— Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana

Author photo
Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.