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Plan to upgrade rails across county remains stalled

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Work is still on hold for a project that could bring more and faster trains through Johnson County.

The Louisville & Indiana Railroad Co. wants to partner with another railroad company to replace tracks and a bridge so trains can increase their speeds from 15 or 25 mph up to a possible 49 mph and allow train cars that carry heavier loads. Traffic on the tracks could then go up from about six trains per day to 17. Drivers would stop more frequently at railroad crossings and hear the horns more often as the trains carrying plastic pellets, automobiles, grain, lumber and other freight pass by neighborhoods.

The project would replace the Louisville & Indiana Railroad Co.’s 106.5 miles of steel tracks and a bridge between Louisville and Indianapolis. CSX Transportation, of Jacksonville, Florida, would pay for much of the up to $90 million project and also pay the Louisville & Indiana Railroad Co. $10 million to share use of the tracks permanently.

No timeline for decision

Construction can’t start because the Surface Transportation Board, which is the federal regulator of railroads, has delayed when it will approve or deny the project and hasn’t set a timeline for when it will make a decision.

So it isn’t known when work will be done on the tracks, which run through Johnson County nearly parallel to U.S. 31.

The track upgrades and speed limit increases would allow CSX Transportation to run about 11 more trains on the rail line. Currently, CSX has an agreement with the Louisville & Indiana Railroad allowing the company to use the tracks, but the upgrades would make the line a more efficient route.

With the upgrades, CSX also would be allowed to run longer trains, increasing the length from up to 5,100 feet to 7,500 feet. And rail cars could carry 286,000 pounds of freight, rather than the current 263,000 pounds. The CSX trains primarily carry automobiles.

The railroad companies originally expected to start construction this spring, but the Surface Transportation Board decided an initial environmental study didn’t provide enough information for the board to approve the project. The board requested that a second study consider other environmental impacts, such as how long emergency vehicles could be stopped at crossings by trains.

This spring, the federal board told Jeffersonville-based Louisville & Indiana Railroad Co., which owns the tracks, that they would make a decision by August on whether to allow the upgrades. Now it’s unclear when that decision will come out because the board doesn’t plan to allow public comment on the new environmental study until the end of the summer, according to a spokesman for the federal board.

The board will consider both environmental studies done for the project and the letters from residents and organizations given during the public comment period. After that, the board would decide whether to approve the project.

“We’re at their mercy here,” said Mike Stolzman, president of the Louisville & Indiana Railroad Co. “It’s getting frustrating.”

The Surface Transportation Board chose late last year to have a second environmental study done because of questions from the Environmental Protection Agency and concerns from local officials across the route of the tracks, such as Edinburgh Town Council member John Drybread, that weren’t addressed in the first study. Drybread wrote a letter to the board asking its members to keep in mind that the tracks divide the town of Edinburgh and having more trains could hinder fire trucks and ambulances from getting to emergencies on the other side.

The primary issues to be considered in the new environmental study will include crossing safety, delays for automobiles, effects on emergency vehicle response, and noise and vibration, according to documents filed with the Surface Transportation Board.

Officials from the Louisville & Indiana Railroad Co. have said they expect the project to be approved because the companies are only replacing existing tracks from where they’ve lain for more than 100 years and are not rerouting them in any way.

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