The cities of Noblesville and Fishers recently released a plan to remove the rails from the Nickel Plate Railroad right of way and replace them with a trail. For a number of reasons I believe this is a bad idea.
First, let me affirm my strong support of trails in general. I have been a bike rider all my life and I believe Noblesville has lagged in trail development for years. We need to build more trails. They are a healthy alternative to driving and a great community asset if they are built properly.
But, that’s the issue. Is this a proper place for a trail? Here’s why I think not.
- There are only a few historic railroads left in the nation. We are lucky to have one. Hundreds of communities didn’t have the foresight to save their historic assets and their communities are worse off for it. History and the railroad are woven into Noblesville’s character. Let’s respect that.
- The fact that the railroad is rare makes it valuable. Until recently the Indiana Transportation Museum was operating this railroad and maintaining the tracks without government subsidies. They were self-supporting based on a business model that depended a strong market for tourist excursions to the State Fair and on the Polar Bear Express. If they were doing it then, there’s no reason they can’t do it again. Local residents would pay $25/ticket to ride the Polar Bear Express on the tracks that the cities now want to tear out, and the museum would sell out all the tickets at that price. They could have charged more. Those markets still exist and are growing. They provide a wonderful opportunity for entrepreneurial-minded businesspeople. With a little creative thinking and political leadership these tracks have loads of business potential.
- Trails are a great amenity and in high demand but they cost money. Noblesville hasn’t budgeted for this trail and you can bet that if we rip out the rails it will be years before the city gets around to paving it. Think of how long they’ve been talking about the Midland Trace and the Levee Trails. It’s been years and neither one is close to being done yet. Midland Trace won’t connect to downtown for many years to come and there’s no reason to think this one will be different. Meantime residents along the right of way will have an abandoned railroad line adjacent to their property. Once its built it will be more public infrastructure to maintain. Remember, the ITM ran the train without public money.
- City leaders are dreaming of a “Monon East” between Noblesville and Fishers and on into Indianapolis. I ride the Monon a lot and one of the most appealing aspects of it is its shade on sunny days. It is a linear park, after all. But while virtually the entire Monon is covered by trees, this trail is almost totally exposed. Check it out for yourself on Google Earth. Yes, trees would eventually grow around the trail but the point is that this is not like the Monon Trail. There are many other reasons this comparison doesn’t work.
- This idea may be a win for Fishers but it doesn’t serve Noblesville very well at all. While the right of way goes right into downtown Fishers, the current plan is to stop short of Noblesville’s courthouse square by some seven blocks. It will eventually connect to the Riverwalk and downtown but those connections are years away.
- Let’s talk road crossings. I’ve heard our city leaders say that trains are very inconvenient for traffic at railroad crossings. I don’t deny they stop traffic but as long as they keep moving the inconvenience is minimal and sporadic. If this trail is as popular as we’re being led to believe it will be, the traffic interruptions at thoroughfares every half mile will be constant. In fact, safety will likely dictate bridges…more cost. The $9.3 million you’ve been sold will likely double once you start building bridges.
After the initial announcement, the cities of Fishers and Noblesville conducted “listening sessions” for residents to express their views on this idea. When they asked for public comment, everyone who spoke was opposed except one woman from Indianapolis who wanted to see the right of way cleaned up. You would have a really hard time finding anyone outside of government who likes this proposal. Virtually everyone is against it. But city leaders aren’t “listening.” It makes you wonder why they even hold the sessions.
Trails are great for a community and I want to see more in Noblesville and Fishers. But let’s be smart in the way we go about building them. Let’s not tear down an important community asset because it’s easy and convenient. The easy way is seldom the best. Noblesville issued an Alternative Transportation Plan in 2008 and updated it in 2011. It identified 99 potential trail routes in the city and not one of them was the Nickel Plate Railroad right of way. Let’s work the plan and not get distracted by alternative ideas that distract from our strategy.
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