VALPARAISO | Valparaiso could get high-speed rail passenger service before it gets the South Shore commuter line spur.
Members of the Fort Wayne-based Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association pitched the proposal for making Valparaiso a stop along the 300-mile higher-speed train route from Chicago's Union Station to Columbus, Ohio, sometime in the next decade at this past week's council meeting.
Richard Davis, NIPRA transportation and management consultant, said the cost of upgrading the route to accommodate 110 mph diesel train service would be about $1.1 billion. This would enable travelers to go from Chicago to Columbus in about three hours and 45 minutes on any of the 10 daily roundtrip trains proposed.
Davis compared the cost to that of replacing a bridge over the Ohio River in Cincinnati of $2.5 billion and the cost of building an interstate of $20 million a mile. A study estimated the corridor would generate 26,800 full-time jobs and have an annual operating surplus of $40 million by the third year.
The trains would go from Valparaiso to Chicago's Union Station in less than 40 minutes, and the suggested ticket prices would be $15 for business class and $12 for economy. The city's ChicaGo Dash express commuter bus service to Chicago's Loop is $8 each way from downtown Valparaiso, and the trip takes about an hour and a half.
NIPRA is visiting many of the proposed stops along the route to generate support and, it hopes, funding for the first environmental impact study needed to qualify the project for federal funding. The "first tier" study is expected to cost $1 million, of which the state has said it will pay half.
City Administrator Bill Oeding said the city "is committed in theory" to the idea of high-speed rail, which would run on the Rail America tracks through the downtown. Oeding said, "We have not settled on how much money each would raise, and we would look to the county and others to partner with us."
Davis said, "We have optimists in the group who believe 2020 is a realistic goal, and we would not be competing with the South Shore. This project offers advantages as an east and west connection, and it is important nationally."
Work already is underway on upgrading the tracks from Chicago to Detroit for higher-speed travel. That route would go through Porter, and millions in federal stimulus funds have been set aside to deal with congestion issues there that would tie up trains.
Davis said the Chicago-to-Detroit route has many of the same issues the Chicago-to-Columbus route must overcome, and NIPRA hopes the solutions found on the former can be used to speed the process as well as the trains on the latter.
The business plan for the route put together for NIPRA at the state's request predicts it would generate $1.71 for every dollar invested. That could help put the project on the fast track.