The federal Surface Transportation Board has delayed a decision until next year on proposed improvements to a key rail line that crosses State Road 46 heading into downtown Columbus.
But that delay, likely three to six months, does nothing to calm city officials’ long-range fears of traffic tie-ups and possible delays in emergency vehicle traffic if the $70 million to $90 million construction plan goes forward. Officials with the Louisville & Indiana and CSX Transportation Inc. railroads have said repairs to 106.5 miles of north-south track in Indiana — and replacing an aging railroad bridge in Columbus — might take seven years to complete.
The Columbus Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has warned that rail improvements “would have a substantial impact on our city’s ability to function well, and (we) ask that all options be considered to optimize our ability to use this corridor,” CAMPO Director Laurence Brown wrote in a letter to the federal transportation board in late September during a public comment period. Brown said during last week that he has had no recent contact with the railroads, and it could be February or later before the transportation board makes a ruling.
Originally, a ruling from the federal agency that oversees rail projects in the U.S. was supposed to take effect this past week, but the Surface Transportation Board decided it needed more information on the environmental impact of the proposed construction project.
In a notice to interested parties last month, the federal board’s Office of Environmental Analysis said its staff must do a supplemental environmental report — and open that up to public comment for 30 additional days — before the full board can rule. An exact schedule for when a final decision will occur hasn’t been issued yet.
“Of key importance is where SR 46 and the railroad meet,” Brown wrote earlier this year. “This is a very high traffic area where many local commuters, students and shoppers travel along with interstate travelers. This is the main corridor in our city, and there are currently no reasonable alternatives to this corridor when traveling east-west.
“This also separates a large portion of the city and its residences from the area’s hospital (Columbus Regional Hospital). Although there are emergency services on both sides, they share resources when necessary and use this corridor to do so,” Brown added in his letter.
Replacing a nearly 100-year-old railroad bridge in Columbus that runs across Flatrock River near Noblitt Park is a major part of the two railroad companies’ joint construction plans. If the project eventually wins federal approval, L&I and Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX said bridge replacement would start in 2015.
Building a sturdier, modern bridge to replace the 100-year-old truss bridge that now runs through a wooded area on the fringe of Noblitt Park near 17th Street would allow heavier, faster trains to travel through Columbus on their way north.
Under plans filed with the federal government, CSX said it would foot the bill for bridge construction and rail line upgrades. It would pay L&I another $10 million for right of way so it could use the L&I’s tracks. The companies said in addition to allowing the longer, heavier trains to travel through Indiana, it would reduce congestion on other rail lines and shave hours off deliveries throughout the Midwest.
In Columbus, trains currently must travel across the old truss bridge at no more than 10 mph for safety reasons.
Surface Transportation Board filings say CSX and L&I plan to install “heavier weight and continuously welded rail” over the entire 106.5 miles of Indiana lines, adding hot-box detectors — devices located trackside to prevent overheating by measuring the temperature of rail bearings, replacing older cross-ties and making other upgrades.
After the project, freight trains would be able to travel at speeds up to 49 mph on major stretches of the tracks with 286,000-pound carloads, including double-stacked containers. Those speeds are about double what L&I’s existing rail lines are allowed to handle.
The Surface Transportation Board application indicates the railroads want to use the improved tracks mainly to carry manufactured automobiles and auto parts northward.
“CSX would also increase the size of rail sidings (where rail cars are stored and realigned) at Elvin and Brook, Ind., on the L&I rail line to make it easier for trains to pass one another. All these changes would allow CSX to move freight more quickly and more economically,” according to a formal notice signed by Victoria Ruston, director of the federal Office of Environmental Analysis.
“If the board should approve the applicants’ proposal, CSX would move between 13 and 15 trains per day mostly from its Louisville-to-Cincinnati rail corridor (now operating at or very close to capacity) to the L&I rail line,” Ruston added. “CSX would not materially increase its train traffic on the L&I rail line until its planned improvements are completed.”
Other communities also have aired various concerns about the rail improvements and what some officials see as possible harm to smooth traffic flow and safety.
In Johnson County, for instance, Edinburgh director of utilities John Drybread wrote to the transportation board asking for a study of how more train traffic will impact emergency vehicles being able to cross the rail lines, which bisect that small town.
Even the existing amount of train traffic caused headaches for some morning commuters heading to and from downtown Columbus as recently as a few weeks ago.
But those weekday traffic woes seem to have eased for now.
Michael Stolzman, president of the L&I Railroad, said Thursday that one particularly troublesome train with 100 rail cars that had crossed the State Road 46 tracks at roughly 8:15 a.m. many weekday mornings has been rescheduled with the help of CSX to pass through Columbus around 3 p.m. instead.
“We’re doing our best to schedule trains in a way that keeps them away from SR 46 during peak commuting times,” he said. “We’re trying to be a good corporate partner. We’re a pretty easy company to work with, and Columbus is one place we didn’t want a train coming through at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m.”
Stolzman said the railroads remain confident of winning formal approval for their overall project early next year.
“God bless bureaucracy and our federal government. We thought we were done and everyone had agreed, and then they (the environmental office) asked for more information at the very end. We have already replied and sent back eight more pages of information adding to the 400-page document they already had. We don’t see a single thing that would indicate this is not going to happen — but exactly when is up to the federal government.”
Stolzman said he doubts the additional review takes the maximum six months that the transportation panel warned was possible. He said the aging truss bridge in Columbus isn’t targeted for removal until 2015 at the earliest, however.
Even faster speeds would be possible if L&I could realign tracks to eliminate curves approaching the bridge near Noblitt Park and 17th Street, the rail line president said, “but I don’t see that happening now.”
Columbus city officials have said one long-term and expensive solution to fix State Road 46 rail congestion would be to build an overpass over the highway.
“Such an overpass will take years to plan and build and require significant resources,” Brown, the CAMPO director said. “A realignment of the railroad might make it easier and cheaper to build such an overpass.”
Kate Knable of The (Johnson County) Daily Journal, a sister paper to The Republic, contributed to this report.