New policy worries states supporting short Amtrak routes

From the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel:

The leader of a coalition of states that foot most of the costs of Amtrak’s short passenger routes says its members are awaiting answers from a federal agency about a new policy Indiana cited in its decision to end a line between Indianapolis and Chicago.

Depending on its final form, the policy being drafted by the Federal Railroad Administration could make it impossible for some states to keep their Amtrak routes running, said Patricia Quinn, who chairs the Portland, Maine-based States for Passenger Rail Coalition.

The Hoosier State line’s last day of service is April 1, and the Indiana Department of Transportation in Friday’s announcement blamed an emerging FRA policy that the state said would effectively deem Indiana a rail carrier even though it does not own any tracks or trains.

INDOT Commissioner Karl Browning called that idea “insane,” saying it would significantly increase costs, paperwork and liability for operating the line, which was among 28 Amtrak routes under 750 miles affected by law Congress passed in 2008 that forced 19 states to pick up most of the costs of those lines by late 2013.

Indiana and seven local government partners, agreed in October 2013 to pay Amtrak $2.7 million to keep the 196-mile Hoosier State line rolling for one year. Indiana twice extended funding for that line.

INDOT had been negotiating for months on long-term agreements with Amtrak and Iowa Pacific, a private company that wanted to take over the Hoosier State’s operations when it decided to end the line because of the FRA’s new policy.

The Federal Railroad Administration has said that as states take on bigger roles managing Amtrak’s short passenger lines, they assume a greater burden to ensure they are safe for passengers and train crews.

“We continue to offer assistance to the state of Indiana — we want to see this service continue, and we continue to work with the state and local officials to ensure that it can,” the FRA said Wednesday in a statement.

The Hoosier State line began service in 1980 and runs four days a week between Indianapolis and Chicago, with stops in four Indiana cities. It’s Amtrak’s least-traveled route, moving only about 34,000 passengers in fiscal year 2014.

Most of the 19 states affected by Congress’ cost-sharing law are coalition members, Quinn said, and each is worried about the new policy’s impact. She said details FRA provided to Indiana contain new oversight requirements and extra costs those states “just aren’t willing or able to take on.”

Quinn added that the coalition’s member states are “anxious to engage” policymakers to make those concerns known.

INDOT has said it would only reconsider its move to end the Hoosier State line if the FRA or U.S. Department of Transportation reversed the rail carrier policy.

U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, sent a letter Wednesday to the FRA’s acting administrator urging the agency to “reverse its decision” to deem INDOT a railroad carrier.

“INDOT is not in a position to assume either the additional liability or the regulatory burdens that a designation of ‘railroad carrier’ would impose,” Coats said in a statement.