A funding plan to pay for a multi-million dollar overpass over train tracks at the State Road 46/State Road 11 interchange in Columbus involves broad collaboration, with even the railroads contributing.
Columbus officials revealed a funding plan to pay for the estimated $30 million overpass, which has now been accepted as a project by the Indiana Department of Transportation, at a joint news conference Wednesday with Cummins Inc. executives and state officials, including Gov. Eric Holcomb.
And while a proposal to relocate the railroad tracks further west of Columbus has been shelved for the time being, city officials are hopeful that the overpass and its funding proposal could give the green light for a construction start of 2019 or 2020.
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That’s within a year or two of when CSX will begin running longer, faster and heavier trains on the Louisville & Indiana rail line from Louisville to Indianapolis that will begin hauling freight through Columbus and Seymour and Crothersville in Jackson County and other communities along the 106½-mile line.
Seymour officials recently met with a representative from L&I to hash out some solutions for the local traffic problems being created by trains rolling through the city.
Earlier this year, the city submitted a plan to INDOT proposing the state build an overpass and a pretzel-shaped traffic pattern intersection at the crossing on Columbus’ west side, which was added to the state’s project list in June, Lienhoop said.
INDOT has rounded up the overpass price to $30 million, and the state is agreeing to pick up $15 million of the cost, Lienhoop said. For the remainder of the cost, city officials project:
$4 million from the city’s Central Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District funds, which will be provided by setting aside $1 to $1.5 million a year over the next three to four years.
$5 million from the Cummins Engine Plant TIF funds, which represents excess money in that fund that exceeds funds necessary to pay the debt obligation that was incurred to bring the assembly lines for the company’s light-duty diesel engines to the city.
$6 million from several sources, including: $2 million from Bartholomew County, a number that is being discussed in informal conversations with county officials; and 5 percent of the total project cost, or $1.5 million from CSX and Louisville & Indiana railroads. The remainder will also come from possible revenue from Indiana highway funds including Community Crossroads grants, federal highway funds such as the TIGER grants and potential savings that could come from the project coming in under budget — the city had estimated the overpass cost at about $27.2 million.
“I can’t emphasize enough — this really is about working with others,” Lienhoop said of putting together the financing pieces to reach the $30 million total. “You have to have partners.”
Several of those partners were at the Cummins’ Corporate Office Building entryway to hear from Holcomb, Lienhoop and Cummins President and Chief Operating Officer Rich Freeland, who announced the collaborative effort and a $50 million upgrade to Cummins’ corporate headquarters.
In the audience, John Goldman, president of Louisville & Indiana Railroad, accepted officials’ thanks for the railroads efforts to work with the city, county, state and Cummins to help fund the project.
“The mayor came to us and we knew it was one of the things we needed to do,” Goldman said after the announcement. “It’s one of the … it is the busiest crossing on our rail line.”
Acknowledging that the rail line is not typically in the business of building an overpass, he also allowed that the railroad would also see a benefit from one fewer crossing on the line north to Indianapolis.
“We often say the best crossing is one that doesn’t exist,” Goldman said.
Lienhoop and Dave Hayward, executive director of public works/city engineer, credited state officials, Cummins officials, INDOT, the railroads and others with a willingness to listen to the serious issues behind the request for the overpass, which the city was first warned about in 2011.
The city hired American StructurePoint to evaluate the effect of CSX’s plans for the rail line on traffic traveling to and from the west side of Columbus and learned the delays would be extensive to the estimated 40,000 vehicles that cross the tracks at State Road 46/State Road 11 each day, Lienhoop said.
“The population of Columbus is about 46,000,” Lienhoop said. “It really showed we have a traffic funnel here in Columbus.”
Hayward said the west entryway is the busiest by far for the entire city. And it was important to be able to back that up with data from the American StructurePoint study to explain to state officials, INDOT and others that an overpass was needed, Lienhoop said.
State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, and state Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, assisted city officials in talking to whomever they could about the railroad problem and seeking the state’s help with it.
INDOT agreeing to place the overpass on its upcoming project list, a huge first step toward solving the problem, was also about maintaining relationships, Lienhoop said. The mayor knows INDOT Commissioner Joe McGuinness through contacts in Franklin and has worked with Holcomb when the current governor was lieutenant governor for current Vice President Mike Pence.
When asked if Columbus’ close ties to the vice president might be beneficial when the city seeks federal grant money for the project, Holcomb laughed and said, “We’ll see,” and “It’s too early to tell.”
But he then stopped and added, “The good news is — when a call comes in from Columbus, Indiana (to the vice president), they get their phone calls returned,” the governor said.
In addition to hopes for state and federal funding, the willingness of Cummins helping the city with the excess funds in its TIF fund was integral to putting together the funding plan, Lienhoop said.
“Without Cummins agreeing to release that money, which is collateral for the debt, we would not be able to do this,” Lienhoop said. “That’s a connection that is important. And the whole reason for the project is we want to get people to work on time.”
The city decided to piggyback its announcement about the overpass with Cummins’ announcement of a multi-million upgrade of its corporate headquarters to honor the company’s commitment to the city and its residents.
“We value Cummins’ presence here and this adds a little bit more to that relationship. They are going to be here for the long haul,” Lienhoop said. “This adds one more exclamation point to that and we are really excited about it.”
When asked how the idea of using Cummins’ TIF funding came about, Lienhoop acknowledged that his background in accounting was a factor in finding the idea for the $5 million allocation from the company.
“It’s what I do,” he said of looking at the project from an accountant’s viewpoint. “Every city should have a CPA taking a look.”
Lienhoop emphasized that if the numbers don’t come together to completely fund the entire project, the city will not bond or borrow money to come up with the remainder, but instead will wait until the money becomes available.
“Our plan today is no new taxes, no borrowing,” he said. “I believe we can make this work without adding any more taxes.”
And the influence of Cummins may resurface as engineering plans are made and the design of the bridge is set.
Lienhoop and Hayward do not want a bland concrete-sided structure to be the overpass, as the structure will be between the iconic red bridge on Interstate 65 welcoming visitors to Columbus and the Robert Stewart bridge, that punctuates that you are entering an unusually beautiful and well-designed downtown.
“This is still Columbus and we don’t want a generic, slab-sided bridge between two pieces of art,” Lienhoop said.
The Indiana Department of Transportation has agreed to place Columbus’ proposal for an overpass over the rail line at State Road 46/State Road 11 intersection on a project list for the 2022 construction year.
INDOT’s current estimate for the project is $30 million and the state has agreed to pay half. The remainder will be paid through Tax Increment Funds from the city’s Central TIF district and the Cummins Engine Plant TIF, and donations from Bartholomew County, CSX Railroad, Louisville & Indiana Railroad, and a combination of state and federal funding. Some savings may result in the project costing less than the $30 million the state is estimating — the city has placed the cost at $27.2 million.
The city has shelved a proposal to relocate the rail line further west at this time.
Proposed funding for the overpass is subject to approval by the Columbus City Council, Columbus Redevelopment Commission, Bartholomew County Commissioners, Bartholomew County Council and the state.
The city is contacting federal representatives, including U.S. Sens. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, and Todd Young, R-Indiana, and seeking assistance for federal funding for the project. The city also is pursuing state funding through Indiana’s recent increase in the gasoline tax, which is to be designated for infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges.
The dates for construction to begin are unknown and INDOT is scheduling projects for 2022. However, the state understand the railroads’ timeline for increased train traffic could warrant a quicker response. State officials have told the city that by working together to accelerate the project’s construction schedule, a target construction date could be in 2019 or 2020.