It never seems to be easy for the Hoosier State, a four-day-a-week passenger rail service between Indianapolis and Chicago, once again on the brink.
But the latest, potentially fatal twist — this one from the Federal Railroad Administration — is a particularly cruel one in a recent history of drawn-out torment devoted to salvaging the Amtrak line.
That was the word of choice from Karl Browning, the Indiana Department of Transportation commissioner, as he balked at the newest demand the feds put on negotiations: Either the state declare itself a railroad and accept the liability that goes with it, or it could forget about the public-private rail contract being hammered out.
Instead, Browning, in a letter sent March 6 to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, announced he was giving up on the Hoosier State as of April 1.
So who knew it would just take a few words from the Federal Railroad Administration about the Hoosier State passenger rail line to finally put so many contentious players, for years at odds over money and adequate service through Lafayette, on the same side of the table?
Who knew it would just take one overreaching expectation from the Federal Railroad Administration to put the Hoosier State one foot in the grave?
And who knew that an INDOT official would wind up the sympathetic hero of any story dealing not only with trying to save the Amtrak line, but also attempting to make it worth a passenger’s time and ticket?
Just how insane is that? Here’s the short course.
In 2008, Congress punted Amtrak’s shortest routes, telling states to be ready to take on the ones under 750 miles by October 2013 or let them die. Indiana seemed perfectly willing to let the Hoosier State wither in a principled standoff over unfunded federal mandates.
INDOT finally relented after local communities pleaded and kicked in roughly half of the $3 million it took annually to keep the service going. Then INDOT took the lead on a public-private arrangement meant to improve on-time arrivals and on-board amenities for the Hoosier State.
But as INDOT closed in on a deal aimed for April 1 — with Amtrak running rolling stock owned by Iowa Pacific Holdings — the Federal Railroad Administration indicated it wouldn’t sign off. Browning argued in his March 6 letter to Foxx that “there is a distinction between contracting for railroad services and providing train service,” especially when similar arrangements are being done in other states.
So far, it’s been to no avail.
The Federal Railroad Administration’s statement on the matter: “As states assume a more active role in the management of these services, including in some instances contracting with multiple service providers, they must more closely ensure their services are safe. … States ultimately have oversight responsibility for their contractors and service providers.”
The upshot here: The federal government told states to cover the costs of passenger rail lines Congress no longer wanted because they were too expensive. When a state — even one dragged into negotiations kicking and screaming — tried to find a better way of running the train, the federal government says it wasn’t enough.
State Rep. Randy Truitt, R-West Lafayette, recently was trying to line up meetings, hoping to get the governor’s office and members of Congress involved. After helping to grease negotiations at the Statehouse, including carrying a bill that would dedicate money for the Hoosier State, was he feeling undercut?
“You know it,” Truitt said. “We’ve come so far on this. Now, to be asked to be considered a railroad and all the liability that comes with that, when all we’re doing is writing a check? That’s just a bit silly to me.”
State Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, pulled no punches.
“INDOT found a way to use a private operator to improve timetables, onboard service, increase ridership and preserve the train,” Hershman said. “The federal government … now believes it needs to tell the state how to run a train for which we are paying because the feds failed in the first place.”
U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Indianapolis, said that he planned to ask Foxx to overturn the Federal Railroad Administration determination.
“These rules do not apply in North Carolina after that state aggressively challenged the (Federal Railroad Administration), and I do not see why they should inconsistently apply in other states like Indiana,” Rokita said.
So is there a way to save the Hoosier State?
“People ask why we’re trying to save the Hoosier State. I say it’s about an investment. It can’t be the way it is now. We need to keep it so we can improve it. That’s what we’ve been working on — a deal that would improve it,” Truitt said. “Until we figure out this (Federal Railroad Administration) ruling, I’d say we’re just hanging on.
Because it’s never easy, maybe not even sane, when it comes to the Hoosier State.
Dave Bangert is a writer for the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier. Send comments to [email protected].