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Railroad upgrade bumped off track

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A delay in federal approval means upgrades for a railroad company’s tracks that cross Johnson County would start in late summer — if they’re approved.

That’s a delay of three to six months for the start of construction on an up to $90 million project, which will replace the Louisville & Indiana Railroad Co.’s 106 miles of steel tracks and a bridge between Louisville, Ky., and Indianapolis.

The upgrades will allow for the train speed limit to increase from 25 mph to 40 mph on the rail line. When complete, CSX Transportation will be able to run nine or more additional trains on the tracks.

The two railroad companies applied to partner on the project. But the federal Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads, delayed making a decision on the companies’ request by its Dec. 6 deadline and

asked for further research on the environmental impacts of the project.

So, for now, that means motorists will continue waiting for the added, long trains that started running on the railroad line this summer. Those trains won’t be allowed to go any faster through the county until the tracks between Seymour and Indianapolis are upgraded.

The federal board stopped the approval process after concluding the companies’ application didn’t address all of the concerns from governments and the people who live near the tracks.

For example, a representative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote to the board with concerns that the first environmental study didn’t consider how the noise of additional trains will affect large communities, such as Indianapolis.

Further study not only should look at additional noise impacts on people but also should consider the migratory patterns of birds and the possibility

that more trains mean more animals will be hit by trains, the letter said.

In Johnson County, Edinburgh director of utilities John Drybread wrote to the board asking officials to look into how the additional train traffic will affect how quickly emergency vehicles will be able to travel east of the tracks, which divide the town in half.

As a result, the federal board has asked CSX to pay for another environmental assessment, which could include studying how wetlands, endangered species or a neighborhood might be impacted by the proposed project.

Once that study is complete, the Surface Transportation Board will request more public input and then make a decision whether to approve the railroad companies’ requests.

Concerns from other federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, particularly catch the board’s attention when it decides how soon to make a decision on companies’ applications, according to the Surface Transportation Board.

Under an existing agreement with the railroad company, CSX sends four trains through Johnson County on the Louisville & Indiana Railroad line, which runs east of U.S. 31 and through Southport, Greenwood, eastern Whiteland, Franklin and Edinburgh. The CSX train cars each hold 10 to 15 Ford automobiles from a Louisville assembly plant, said Mike Stolzman, president of the Louisville & Indiana Railroad Co.

The CSX trains are 100-car trains, hauling up to 1,500 vehicles each north to Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Distribution centers then send the automobiles to dealerships nationwide, Stolzman said.

The train lengths range from 5,000 to 10,000 feet, or up to almost 2 miles. CSX began running the trains on the rail line last summer, and county residents have noticed that the trains are long and slow. The trains will not be able to increase their speed until the tracks are upgraded.

If the proposal is approved, the railroad companies would stay separate businesses, but CSX Transportation, based in Jacksonville, Fla., would spend up to $90 million to upgrade the track system and pay the Jeffersonsville-based railroad company

$10 million. In exchange, CSX would permanently get to run its trains on the Louisville & Indiana Railroad’s line.

CSX and the Louisville & Indiana Railroad expect to get approval for their project around April and then to start replacing steel rails in late summer, Stolzman said.

“We don’t know of anything that would possibly stop the project. It’s just another step in the process,” he said.

The three- to six-month delay is a small one for a project that could take up to seven years to complete, he said. The companies already are doing preliminary engineering work, such as surveying and soil testing, for the rail upgrades, he said.

Next year, the company plans to begin phase one of the work, which would include laying new rail and repairing bridges between Seymour and Louisville. Phase two of the project, which could end up happening simultaneously, would involve replacing rail and upgrading bridges from Seymour to Indianapolis, he said.

The third and final phase is replacement of the Flatrock River bridge in Columbus, which will require substantial design work, he said.

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