Chesterton Tribune

Porter County funds farm rail line purchase

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By VICKI URBANIK

With three members switching their votes, the Porter County Council on Tuesday released the funds needed toward a tri-county effort to purchase a farm rail line on the brink of abandonment.

With its $50,000 commitment, Porter County now joins LaPorte and Starke counties, along with the LaPorte County Co-op, town of North Judson and the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum, in putting up the local share for the $1.9 million acquisition, of which up to $1.5 million is expected to come from the state.

Plans call for a quasi-governmental entity to be formed to oversee the operation of the line, which runs from Malden grain towers in Porter County eastward.

CSX is scheduled to abandon the tracks by the end of this week. If enough funds weren’t secured for the acquisition by the agricultural coalition, the property would have likely converted to recreational trails.

Last month, in a vote that clearly stunned rail supporters, the council shot down the funding, 4-3. But on Tuesday, council members John Ruge, R-at large, Al Steele, R-3rd, and Rita Stevenson, D-2nd, reversed themselves, appropriating the funds from the $3 million available to the county government this year through the County Economic Development Income Tax.

Stevenson criticized the county commissioners for not giving the council more advance information when they first presented the rail request. She said she thought when the council enacted CEDIT, the commissioners and the council would work together planning the use of the money, but that did not happen in this case.

Saying that she voted no last month largely because of concerns presented by one opponent, Stevenson said she has since collected unbiased information that prompted her to change her mind.

But she also took strong exception to a characterization made in a LaPorte County newspaper that the council didn’t seem to understand the issue last month. She said she fully understood that doing away with the rail line would affect farmers’ transportation options.

“When it’s gone, it’s gone,” she said.

Ruge said he now knows that the county itself will not be buying the CSX line, as he thought last month when he voted no.

After recessing and hashing out the particulars with council attorney Dave Hollenbeck, the council agreed to release the funds only under the following conditions:

•That the rail line will not return later asking for more tax support.

•That an acceptable intergovernmental agreement can be reached that resolves questions of liability, allows Porter County to recover its contribution if the effort goes bankrupt, and establishes an acceptable maintenance plan.

The council also agreed to find out the accuracy of a claim made by a rail opponent that the state is considering closing the rail crossing at U.S. 30 in Hanna. But the state legislators in attendance – Ralph Ayres, R-Chesterton, Nancy Dembowski, D-Knox, and Steve Heim, R-LaGrange – all said they know of no such plan in the works.

“If they close the crossing, INDOT would be throwing away $1.5 million,” Heim said of the Indiana Department of Transportation.

Just as they did last month, advocates of preserving the line said Tuesday it would keep costs down for farmers, spur economic development countywide and protect a disappearing infrastructure. Opponents once again argued against the use of tax dollars for the effort.

“Let the farmers buy their own railroad,” said Valparaiso resident Andrew Medema, who called on the council to rescind the CEDIT.

But Lee Nagai, the engineer for the town of Burns Harbor, said even though he is involved in an organization that directly competes with the LaPorte County Co-op, he favors the rail’s acquisition.

He said every rail spur torn up in this country is used by Brazil to build its own rail infrastructure. He said this country needs to keep the rail systems it already has.

“Look a little globally,” he said.

Steele made a motion to delay the matter and set up a committee to look into the concerns raised, including the U.S. 30 closure issue. The motion failed

The council later voted 6-1 to approve the funding. Only Carole Knoblock, D-4th, voted no.

 

posted 7/28/2004