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Council backs high-speed rail study with cash

Once again, the City Council has voted to support a study needed to bring high-speed passenger rail to the city, but this time council members backed it up with cash.

The council voted unanimously Tuesday to give $200,000 toward an environmental study of a high-speed rail line between Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago, with stops at several cities in between, including Fort Wayne.

“I believe this is critically important. If we do not move forward diligently, this project could be in jeopardy,” said Geoff Paddock, D-5th, who pushed the measure and has long championed the cause.

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 $200,000 represents about 10.percent of the expected cost of the 18-month, three-state study, which is required before federal officials will consider paying for 80 percent of the $1.2 billion rail project.

Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association officials have said that the Indiana Department of Transportation could pay for half of Indiana’s share in the study, but officials at INDOT and other cities are looking to Fort Wayne to commit funding first. The Allen County commissioners considered a request for $50,000 last week and generally backed the idea, but said they needed to draw up a formal proposal identifying where the money would come from.

Where Fort Wayne’s money would come from has been an issue: Paddock, who is a Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association board member, introduced the idea in the fall, but council members didn’t want to use Legacy Fund money, which comes from the lease and sale of the city’s old electric utility. Paddock then introduced a resolution backing the spending, but without identifying a source for the money; that was approved unanimously in December.

Tuesday, a bipartisan effort between council members and the city administration made it happen: Taking the advice of Russ Jehl, R-2nd, $250,000 that had been designated for efforts to make the city more inviting to visitors was moved out of the County Economic Development Income Tax budget and back into the Legacy Fund budget, where it was originally approved. That freed up money in the CEDIT budget for the rail study.

Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association officials say the line could not only be self-supporting but in just a few years could turn a profit. Tickets would be $39 or $49 for business class, NIPFA officials estimated, and the line could be operational in 2020.

Council members also approved budgetary changes to allow a larger firefighter academy class, due to start next week. A class of 15 new firefighters had been planned, but officials discovered they had not accounted for resignations and retirements. Controller Pat Roller asked for $3 million in changes, which would have allowed $800,000 for the fire department, but council members denied a request to remove $400,000 from the Parks Department budget.

The money for the fire department was not appropriated; Roller said she would be back later in the year when it was clearer exactly how much would be needed.