Columbus’ proposal to state transportation officials for a State Road 46 overpass to avoid the west-side railroad crossing has been modified to create a scenario that the state and local motorists might find attractive.

Mayor Jim Lienhoop plans to talk about the design during his State of the City address Thursday and has already discussed it with the Columbus Economic Development Corp. board.

The new conceptual design includes:

Moving off the current path of State Road 46 further south and traveling through what is now farmland to a new overpass to be constructed over the Louisville & Indiana railroad tracks and State Road 11.

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The overpass itself is further south on State Road 11 than had originally been projected and is longer and wider than originally proposed.

The pretzel pattern to allow access to the overpass is on the east side of the overpass so drivers entering or leaving Columbus will have unimpeded travel on State Road 46.

The unimpeded travel includes no stoplight on State Road 46. The first stoplight motorists will encounter when entering downtown Columbus will be on the other side of the Robert N. Stewart Bridge, and when leaving downtown, further west on State Road 46.

The alignment of the railroad tracks has also been slightly changed, moving further west than originally proposed and creating new grade crossings at Tellman Road, County Road 100N and Indianapolis Road, where the tracks will meet the original railroad alignment heading north.

The railroad realignment includes the need for a new railroad bridge over the Driftwood River west of Mill Race Park.

The updated plan, being considered as a pending project before the Indiana Department of Transportation, is in competition with dozens of other projects nominated by cities and towns across the state.

Lienhoop said city officials met with INDOT officials at the Seymour district office and were encouraged by their reaction to the city’s presentation that detailed merits of the project.

“But we are competing with projects all around the state, some of which have been on the drawing board much longer,” Lienhoop said.

The city may learn by mid-month whether the project has made the state list of accepted projects, he said.

The city has proposed that INDOT pay $20 million for the cost of the overpass plan, with the city coming up with the remainder of the funding.

Cost of the overpass and pretzel configuration has been estimated at $20 million to $25 million, while the overall cost for the overpass and railroad alignment is being estimated at $94 million or more.

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

Ways to pay for the overpass and the railroad alignment project are being explored and the city plans to look at federal and state funding, grants and other options. Lienhoop said the Columbus Redevelopment Commission will be involved in those discussions.

Even if the project is accepted by INDOT in this first selection round, and is eventually put on the state’s project list, the earliest construction might start is 2021 or 2022, Leinhoop 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.

The Louisville & Indiana tracks follow a path through the downtown, at grade crossing intersections at County Road 200S, Spear Street, State Road 46/State Road 11, and Fifth, Eighth and 11th streets.

City officials have learned that when CSX Transportation submitted its environmental assessment of the proposed changes in April 2015 to federal officials, their own assessment showed three crossings in Columbus ranked in the top five of daily vehicle delays — State Road 46 (top of the list), Eighth Street and 11th Street. That’s out of 154 intersections studied between Louisville and Indianapolis, and includes crossings in Seymour, Taylorsville, Edinburgh, Franklin and Greenwood.

Preparing for train changes

The city has been working for a year to come up with a plan to deal with longer, faster and heavier trains planning to use the Louisville & Indiana tracks beginning in the third or fourth quarter of 2018.CSX is leasing the tracks between Louisville and Indianapolis, which travel through Columbus and Seymour, and is making $100 million in improvements to create a continuous-welded, high-speed rail line for northbound freight.

John Goldman, Louisville & Indiana railroad president, said construction to upgrade the rail line has been completed from Louisville to the north side of Seymour, and upgrades to the track on the north side of Seymour to Indianapolis will begin April 5. Completion is expected to be no later than Aug. 1.

The upgrade involves installing new rails, railroad ties, ballast and other improvements designed to support high-speed rail. The railroad plans to replace the Flatrock River Bridge in 2018, to allow for double-stacked train cars. When that is completed, the new high speed rail line will be operational.

The city hired American StructurePoint to study the impact of the upgraded line and the consultants predict Columbus will have as many as 22 trains a day traveling through the State Road 46 intersection and through the downtown area compared to eight now. Trains will be longer, from 5,100 feet now to 7,500 feet in the future.

American StructurePoint consultants predict longer waits for motorists who travel on State Road 46 to downtown Columbus, estimating today’s average 13-minute wait to increase to 20 minutes in 2018 and possible 40 minutes by 2036 if the State Road 46/11 intersection isn’t modified.

Goldman said the railroad is aware of the city’s plans for the overpass, and from its perspective is only concerned whether the overpass is going to be high enough and wide enough to protect the railroad’s right-of-way.

“We own our own right-of-way,” Goldman said of the path the railroad follows through Columbus.

He said the railroad does not want any restrictions on its access to right-of-way below an overpass.

But eliminating a grade crossing at State Road 46 is a benefit to the railroad, Goldman said.

“For the railroad, the best crossing is one that doesn’t exist,” he said.

Future challenges

While the overpass would solve the immediate traffic problems for people traveling into the city from the west on State Road 46, it doesn’t address what the city has identified as safety, noise and other issues with trains traveling through intersections in downtown Columbus.The railroad realignment proposed by the city would move the train tracks outside the city limits on a path west from the new overpass, across a new railroad bridge that would have to be built across the Driftwood River, and then across Tellman Road and County Road 100N to link up with the previous route along Indianapolis Road.

The former track section that travels through the six Columbus intersections would become a railroad spur, still available for use by the railroad but not for high-speed rail.

Lienhoop acknowledges that the section the city wants to move west includes the new railroad bridge that the railroad plans to build in 2018 over the Flatrock River as it travels toward Indianapolis Road.

The mayor said it was unfortunate that the city wasn’t prepared in 2011 to encourage the railroad to consider relocating when plans were being made for the upgraded rail line.

“Even if we get this (relocation) built out many years from now, the railroad will still need that section of track — including a spur to be able to place 10,000-foot trains on a siding when needed. That could be accomplished on at least one section in Columbus without blocking intersections, the mayor said.

Goldman said the city has brought up the possibility of railroad location to him, and railroad officials are listening.

But at this time, the city’s desire for railroad relocation has nothing to do with the railroad’s plan to upgrade to high-speed rail, he said.

Asked whether the Louisville & Indiana Railroad would oppose attempts by the city to relocate the line, Goldman said the best answer he can give is the railroad is proceeding with its own upgrade plan and does not plan to slow that process.

And although he acknowledged the railroad could simply say no to relocation, as it owns the right-of-way for the tracks and has owned it for more than a century, Goldman said the railroad has always tried to be a good corporate citizen.

“If the city has a good idea, we will support it,” he said. “But it’s going to take time and a lot of money. If the city wants to relocate us, we want to own our right-of-way and someone will have to obtain that,” he said.

While there have been minor shifts in track location over the years between Louisville and Indianapolis, there hasn’t been a major rail relocation on the line in its history, Goldman said.

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.