Hamilton County (Indiana) officials are rejecting a proposal to retain a former Nickel Plate Road branch line that has been used in recent years by the Indiana Fairtrain.
Instead, they want to move forward with their plans to remove the rails and make the right of way a 9.2-mile paved hiking and biking trail.
The Indiana Transportation Museum, which operated the Fairtrain through 2015, had proposed building the trail next to the tracks.
However, Fisher Mayor Scott Fadness rejected that idea, saying that the right of way is not wide enough for rails and a trail to co-exist.
Fadness said the right of way is 50 feet and to have both rails and a trail would require 120 feet.
The mayor also cited safety concerns.
“I do not believe from what my engineers have told me that within our current right of way bounds it would be safe to put a trail next to a rail line,” Fadness said. “As a father of 2-year-old, the idea of putting a trail within several feet of a locomotive doesn’t sound like a logical solution from my perspective.”
Some rail proponents left a recent public meeting a Fishers City Hall that was devoted to the trail idea feeling disappointed.
“I thought it was presented as an open discussion between a rail and trail and the whole purpose of the meeting is strictly trail,” said Wilbur Sutton, who wants the tracks retained.
An online petition seeking to preserve the rail line has thus far generated more than 4,300 signatures.
ITM official John McNichols disagrees with the mayor’s safety concerns and believes the right of way is large enough to support a trail and the tracks.
“It’s ludicrous,” McNichols said. “We don’t know where they got that. No trail in the county needs that kind of right away unless it’s a park.”
However, on the day of the public hearing, Fadness said the tracks and trail idea will not be considered.
Fishers, Noblesville and the Hamilton County Commissioners said in February they planned to launch a $9.3 million project to convert the rail line to a trail that they said would be similar to a nearby trail built on the former right of way of the Monon Railroad.
Supporters of the proposed Nickel Plate Trail say that rehabilitating the railroad tracks for passenger service would cost up to $5 million.
Last year the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority, which oversees the rail line, would not allow ITM to provide excursion service on the route, saying that it had safety concerns.
In 2015, the last year that the Fairtrain operated, it generated $700,000 in revenue and was ridden by more than 10,000 passengers.
ITM would like to see the rail line extended beyond 10th Street in Indianapolis, where it now ends, to Union Station.
That would enable service such as the Fairtrain to serve Bankers Life Fieldhouse – home of the Indiana Pacers NBA team – and Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the Indianapolis Colts NFL team.
McNichols estimates it would cost $1.5 million for that extension. At one time the NKP line did extend to Union Station, but those tracks were removed many years ago.
ITM and the Port Authority have been in conflict since last year over the condition of the rail line.
The Port Authority commissioned an inspection of the tracks that found they needed at least $3.7 million, but potentially up to $5 million, in repairs. Repairing the tracks between Fishers and the fairgrounds would cost more than $2 million, it said.
But ITM counters that as recently as June 2016 the Federal Railroad Administration said the line was safe for passenger service, although it would be limited to slow speeds.
“We’re certainly hopeful that enough community support can actually sway the officials,” McNichols said about his group’s proposal to retain the rails next to the trail.
He noted that there are trails next to the rail line in some places in Hamilton County, including at the Riverwalk Depot in Noblesville.
Following this week’s meetings, Fishers, Noblesville, and Hamilton County officials will decide whether to pursue funding for the Nickel Plate Trail.
If the rails are removed, ITM said it might move its railroad rolling stock and locomotives to another location within Indiana for excursion service.
At one point, some Hamilton County officials had raised the prospect that ITM could continue to use the former NKP line for excursion service between Noblesville and Tipton.
ITM has operated excursions on that segment of the route in past years.
Fishers Mayor Fadness sees the issue as a cost-benefit matter. A trail would get more use than a set of railroad tracks.
“It’s going to be $9 million for a trail that you [could] use 365 days a year,” he said. “Far more than 40,000 people would be able to utilize that. From a cost-benefit perspective, it’s very clear to me what the right policy decision is.”
The Rails to Trails Conservancy said there are more than 1,660 rails-with-trails in 41 states, but 10 times as many trail-only corridors on former rail right of ways.
In the meantime, ITM posted a statement on its website saying that it has prepared a master plan that calls for increased excursions and events “to maximize economic and cultural benefit.”
“With downtown developments carrying the Nickel Plate theme, the railroad as a historical, tourism-oriented entity has the capacity to continually enrich the area’s market appeal and economic footprint. Studies have shown ITM is one of the top attractions in Hamilton County,” the statement said.