Nickel Plate Saga Touches Midtown

by Thomas P. Healy

Attorneys representing the City of Indianapolis have filed paperwork with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) seeking permission to assume financial responsibility for the section of the former Nickel Plate rail line within Marion County, a portion of which runs through Midtown. [PDF]

The City of Fishers, City of Noblesville, and Hamilton County, collectively as the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority (HHPA), own the 37-mile right-of-way between Indianapolis and Tipton. Each of the rail line owners has appointed representatives to the HHPA to carry out day-to-day management activities. The group seeks a “Notice of Interim Trail Use” from the STB that would permit construction of a recreational trail in the corridor.

According to Dan Parker, director of the Department of Public Works for the City of Indianapolis, the City filed the paperwork in order to “assert our rights to protect the corridor.” He said no determination has been made about use but that it was important for the City to place the notice in the public record. “The HHPA owns the corridor from 96th Street to 10th Street,” he said, adding, “The City of Indianapolis does not have representation on that board.”

The STB is an independent adjudicatory and economic-regulatory agency created in 1996 after the dissolution of the Interstate Commerce Commission. Congress empowered the STB to resolve railroad rate and service disputes and issues regarding proposed railroad mergers.

Until recently, the Nickel Plate was used for excursion trains like the Fair Train, which used to run through Midtown on its way to and from the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Indianapolis City-County Councillor Jared Evans sent a letter to the STB asking it to hit the pause button. “Even though it’s not in my district, the Fair Train and the Polar Bear Express were amenities to our city,” he said recently. “I want the City to take a step back and bring a coalition together to have a conversation and figure out what’s best for the City of Indianapolis.”

Midtown resident Richard Vonnegut agrees and has filed suit in Marion County Superior Court, asking that the Court require the City to withdraw its trail use request.

Terry Tolliver, of counsel with the law firm Brattain Minnix Garcia, represents Vonnegut as well as Save the Nickel Plate, a Fishers-based community group that has filed a lawsuit against the rail line’s three owners. “The overarching objective of the lawsuits is to insure that citizens have a voice and are able to provide oversight on the project,” Tolliver said. “It’s our clients’ position that the state’s Open Door laws were not being followed.”

Indiana’s Open Door law embodies the principles of good governance by outlining steps to insure all members of the public have access to meetings of public agencies.

“The purpose of the lawsuit is to ensure that the law is being followed,” Tolliver said. He said his clients have filed a request with the STB to halt consideration of the owners’ requests until the Court rules on the lawsuits.

In a sharply worded October 9 filing with the STB, Robert Wimbish, counsel for the rail line’s three owners, characterized the request by Tolliver’s clients as “deficient and unwarranted” and asked for expedited consideration of the owners’ requests.