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Council backs rail-line study again

Members find new source after rejecting Legacy Fund

– It may have been the most anticipated, most watched, meaningless vote by the City Council in the last decade.

That’s not to say it wasn’t meaningful: When council members voted unanimously to back a nonbinding resolution calling for $200,000 toward an environmental study of a high-speed rail line, committee chairman Tom Smith, R-1st, called joyously, “It’s done!” bringing cheers and applause from the more than 100 people jammed into the council chambers to see the vote.

The measure was pushed by Geoff Paddock, D-5th, for a $2 million study of a high-speed rail route between Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago, a cause he has long championed. He first proposed that Fort Wayne contribute $200,000 toward the study last month, but he revised it after council members raised concerns that he wanted to use Legacy Fund money for the project. That money comes from the lease and sale of the city’s old electric utility.

But council members said they backed the idea, just not the funding source, so he chugged on.

Russ Jehl, R-2nd, suggested using Community Economic Development Income Tax money already budgeted for the Front Door Fort Wayne program for 2014. That money hadn’t been specifically allocated, but it’s intended for things to make Fort Wayne more inviting.

The resolution approved Tuesday is non-binding but suggests the Front Door Fort Wayne money as a source for the cash. The city’s Pam Holocher said she expects the administration to send the council an appropriation bill shortly after the first of the year.

If the $2 million is raised by the other cities and states along the route, it would pay for an 18-month, three-state study, which is required before federal officials will consider paying for 80 percent of the rail project, estimated at $1.1 billion, or about $5 million a mile.

If built, the rail line would move trains at 110 mph, allowing passengers to get from Fort Wayne to downtown Chicago in two hours or less, Paddock said. Lima, Ohio, and Warsaw are already starting the process to contribute money toward the study, he said.

“I consider this a long shot,” said John Crawford, R-at large. “But I will vote for this because I think we should do some speculative things and bet on some long shots, and I think if this does happen, it will be a great thing for Fort Wayne.”

Council members also voted unanimously to back a huge property tax break for BAE Systems. The British defense contractor plans a new $39 million manufacturing plant near Fort Wayne International Airport, keeping 1,000 jobs in Fort Wayne.

The company has been looking for a new location, and there were fears that the company was looking at land in Van Wert and Paulding, Ohio, from the facility on Taylor Street it rents from General Electric.

City officials said the extraordinary nature of the project warranted a larger tax break than usual. Instead of the city gradually phasing in the property taxes over 10 years, property owner Scannell Properties will pay nothing on $3.2 million worth of equipment the first five years, then pay 50 percent of the tax in year five, 60 percent in year six, and so on. It will pay no property taxes on the $39 million land and building for 10 years.

Altogether, the measure will save the company about $13.2 million over the decade.

The council also moved forward on removing the tax breaks from six companies that haven’t filed paperwork to keep their abatements in place. A vote on the measure is expected next week.

dstockman@jg.net

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