Columbus has submitted two possible solutions to state transportation officials to help local motorists cope with increased train traffic projected to begin next year.

With its submission to the Indiana Department of Transportation, city officials are hoping to get the train crossing at the State Road 46 West and State Road 11 intersection added to a list of accepted improvement projects — which would generate outside funding.

But it won’t be a quick process.

“If we put it in now, and it’s accepted, we’re talking about construction starting in 2021 or 2022,” Mayor Jim Lienhoop said. “We’ve got a ways to go on this.”

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The mayor said the city has submitted two of five possible plans offered as solutions by consultant American StructurePoint to INDOT:

  • A realignment of the railroad, moving it to the west with an overpass over State Road 46.
  • A new interchange at the State Road 46 and State Road 11 intersection with ramps in a pretzel-shaped pattern around the intersection and an overpass over the grade crossing.

The ultimate solution would actually be both plans done together, said Dave Hayward, the city’s executive director of public works/city engineer.

“Either of them on their own still have some issues. But together, the two would solve everything about railroads and the traffic,” he said.

The city has estimated the cost of the overpass and pretzel-shaped pattern intersection at $27.2 million. The cost of relocating the railroad and building the overpass is being estimated at $94 million, which Lienhoop said the city would never be able to shoulder on its own.

In its proposal to INDOT, the city is proposing that INDOT pay $20 million of the cost for either option, with the city pursuing ways to fund the remainder.

Even with the large cost, Lienhoop would prefer that the city pursue moving the railroad out of the city and building the overpass, he said.

“If the railroad stays in town and maintains its current path, it makes me wonder about the long-term effects on Mill Race Park, Mill Race Center (and the city’s bus station),” Lienhoop said.

There are significant safety issues to be addressed where the northbound high-speed trains will enter and leave Columbus, he said.

“There is a danger zone around the tracks,” Lienhoop said. “I think it’s about 200 feet on either side of the track — in the event of derailments or collisions. Moving the railroad would be my preferred solution, if we can figure out how to find the money.”

Coming in late 2018

The city is preparing for longer, faster and heavier CSX trains to begin hauling freight northbound on the Louisville & Indiana tracks beginning in the third or fourth quarter of 2018, Lienhoop said.

It won’t be sooner than that because the railroad must first replace the Flatrock River Bridge near Columbus. The century-old rail bridge needs to be widened for modern rail traffic and upgraded to carry the double-stacked rail cars the railroad plans to use.

In 2016, the railroad finished installing newer high-speed rails between Seymour and Columbus and will begin installing the new high-speed rail from Columbus to Indianapolis this year, Lienhoop said.

The Flatrock River bridge project will then come in 2018, possibly being completed by the third quarter of that year, he said.

American StructurePoint’s impact study shows that the city will have as many as 22 trains a day traveling through the State Road 46 intersection compared to eight now, and the trains’ length will be longer, from 5,100 feet now to 7,500 feet in the future.

“One of the things we’ve learned about working with the Louisville & Indiana and CSX railroads is that we’re dealing with estimates,” Lienhoops said. “They’ve made it clear that they submitted an estimate of 22 trains to the federal transportation board — but they may run more and they may run less. It depends on the economy and depends on the length of the trains. If they run a longer train, they might not need 22 trains in one day. It will vary based on freight demands.”

With those changes come longer waits for motorists who use State Road 46 to travel into Columbus from the west side, with the consultants predicting today’s 13-minute average wait for a train will increase to 20 minutes in 2018 and possibly to 40 minutes by 2036 if the intersection is not modified.

Both Louisville & Indiana and CSX are private railroad companies, and the State Road 46 and 11 intersection is where two state highways come together. Columbus has no ownership in any of it, but will have to take a leadership role in solving the problem, Hayward said.

“The community is going to pay the price, even though we don’t have a dog in this fight,” Hayward said. “But we’re trying to solve the problem.”

At some point, the city does expect communication from INDOT about how much the city will be expected to commit financially to the project, Lienhoop said. However, he isn’t willing to venture a guess on cost at this point, as it will vary by which of the options are chosen.

The city may hear something from INDOT this spring after the Columbus proposal is first evaluated at the Seymour district office and — if deemed worthy — moves on to be evaluated by INDOT in Indianapolis.

If and when a plan is selected by INDOT, city officials will go back to the Columbus Redevelopment Commission and Columbus City Council to consider funding, Lienhoop said. City ordinance requires council approval before the redevelopment commission can spend $500,000 or more on any project.

“Before we would ever commit the city to any funding, we will have fully exhausted all of the alternative funding sources we can find,” Lienhoop said.

Since the increased train traffic will begin long before construction on a solution, the city will have some time to evaluate what the railroads are doing and perhaps adjust the plan to fit the disruption and delay.

“If we conclude that the increased traffic is not as much of an issue as we thought it would be, we will have the option of pulling back,” Lienhoop said. “We do have some lead time here, but we wanted to get in at the first opportunity for INDOT’s call for projects this year. Last year’s call came on Jan. 9, just nine days into the new administration, far too early for the city to have options available to submit, he said.

One of the sticking points is nailing down solid cost estimates to relocate the railroad further west from its current location and combining an overpass over State Road 46.

The Driftwood River, which would be impacted by the plan, in itself is not that wide, but the Driftwood River’s floodway is expansive, Lienhoop said.

Any plan to relocate the railroad west would involve elevating it above that floodway, with some sort of trestle-type arrangement, the mayor said.

“That would involve an incredible amount of money,” Lienhoop said.

Moving the railroad west would require another bridge over the Driftwood River and through its floodway, which is one of the reasons that railroad relocation is so expensive, the mayor said.

“Engineering firms have told use, just to build a 3,500-foot bridge through the Driftwood floodway, it would be a $50 million bridge,” the mayor said.

Lienhoop met recently with Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, about the railroad issue and was assured that the senator and his staff are monitoring the process.

Donnelly told city officials about the possibility of obtaining funds a federal grant program funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation — allocating money for road, rail, transit and port projects that promise to achieve national objectives.

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

Most of these federal rail grants are $15 million to $20 million, and Lienhoop said Columbus would need far more than that to fix the railroad problem.

“Securing more than $15 million to $20 million will be a challenge,” he said.

First steps

Columbus already has made a few changes in preparation for an increased number of trains.

In October, the city approved spending about $150,000 to refurbish and place a fire department truck with specialized extrication equipment at Station 5 on Columbus’ west side. That’s in case the new Squad 1 truck at Station 1 used in extrications would be blocked by a train and unable to get to the west side in a timely manner.

A long-term goal is for the Columbus Fire Department to increase manpower at the city’s two west-side stations, Station 5 and 6, although upping employment numbers isn’t going to happen right away, according to the fire department. Since the west-side firefighters cover accident scenes and fires on Interstate 65, additional resources may be needed on the west side if trains block access for other firefighters to respond.

City officials also are meeting with county officials about improvements to Lowell Road, a winding narrow thoroughfare on Columbus’ west side that connects that area to U.S. 31 on Columbus’ north side.

The county has listed Lowell Road as a possible improvement project this year, possibly straightening some of the road’s 90-degree curves and significant jogs, and widening it from its current 19 to 20 feet to a standard 22 feet with a paved shoulder.

Saying Lowell Road presents an opportunity, Lienhoop said the road in its current condition was not designed to carry large amounts of traffic, and particularly was not designed to handle large vehicles.

Government officials have begun addressing challenges of obtaining right-of-way and utilities for a Lowell Road project, the mayor said.

The city also is pursuing quiet-zone designations for the railroad crossings which pass through city intersections, including Fifth, Eighth and 11th Streets, the mayor said.

A quiet zone is an area designated by the Federal Railroad Administration in which the train does not blow its horn when passing through an intersection. Establishing the quiet zones would require a $300,000 to $500,000 investment at each intersection for additional safety equipment, but the lead time to have them designated and improved is considerably shorter — six months to a year. The city may wait until closer to the third quarter of 2018 before considering that investment, Lienhoop said.

As the train-traffic increase looms within another year, Lienhoop said the mayor’s office has been hearing from local residents who want to know the schedule so they can avoid the intersection when trains are expected.

“We have to tell them there is no schedule for the trains,” Lienhoop said of drivers’ frustration with delays when trains come through Columbus. “Passenger trains have schedules, but this is … 100 percent freight and they move whenever they have something to move.”

Five alternatives

American StructurePoint, an Indianapolis consulting firm, presented five alternatives for the city to consider to mitigate the impact of more trains crossing through Columbus beginning in 2018.

  1. Do nothing
  2. Moving the railroad tracks 1,000 to 1,500 feet west of the current crossing at State Road 46 and State Road 11.
  3. Moving the railroad tracks 1,000 to 1,500 feet west of the current crossing at State Road 46 and State Road 11 and adding a State Road 46 overpass over the railroad tracks.
  4. Leaving the tracks where they are now at State Road 46 and State Road 11 and building an overpass only for eastbound traffic. Westbound traffic leaving the city would still have to wait for trains at the grade-level crossing.
  5. Building an interchange on the east side of the State Road 46 and State Road 11 intersection, replacing the current intersection and including a bridge for the eastbound and westbound traffic to travel over the train tracks.

Option 3 and Option 5 are favored by city officials, with a combination of the two predicted to solve most if not all the problems the city faces with increasing train traffic.

Where to learn more

The city of Columbus is regularly updating information about the railroad project on its website at columbus.in.gov.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.