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Fail Trail? Indianapolis and US Rail Seek Different Outcomes

The latest phase in a metro-Indianapolis rail-to-trail greenway project appears to be moving forward–for now.

The Indianapolis Star recently reported that the city is considering joining two of its northeastern suburbs in further developing the Nickel Plate greenway. The project, which currently involves Noblesville and Fishers, would connect with the Midland Trace and Monon Trails to form a 50-mile loop through several neighborhoods in the northern Indianapolis metro area. According to The Star, the city indicated its interest in “sponsoring” its section of the former Indiana State Fair Train track line.

The announcement is the latest in a long trend of rail-to-trail transformations made by urban centers across the Midwest. Minneapolis’s Midtown Greenway, a 5.7-mile stretch of bicycle and pedestrian lanes, runs through the south-central part of the city and was developed from a former corridor of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad in three phases beginning in 2000. In Cleveland, a series of multimillion-dollar investments by both public and private foundations over the past ten years has resulted in the Lake Link Trail, a vehicle-free pathway carved in part from the remnants of a Cleveland and Mahoning Railroad line. And in Detroit, the acquisition of abandoned Conrail property has factored heavily into the Joe Louis Greenway project, an undertaking that proponents hope will help to atone for a history of urban planning in the Motor City which proved to be as destructive as it was intentionally discriminatory.

Monon Trail
Cyclists on the Monon Greenway Trail in Carmel, Indiana

Such repurposing of old rail lines typically yields numerous benefits to a municipality. The 606 in Chicago has provided greenery, running and biking paths, and space for art showcases and community events—all in a traditionally underserved part of the city. Atlanta anticipates an eventual $10-20 billion in economic development through its ambitious BeltLine project. In some cases, like that of central Iowa’s High Trestle Trail, the spoils of this type of development seem to have extended beyond the urban core.

As with most urban revitalization initiatives, however, these perks are frequently accompanied by significant drawbacks. In the short term, properties adjacent to new greenways often experience logistical difficulties, such as with parking and accessibility, and in the long term, the slow yet reliable creep of gentrification ensues as housing prices skyrocket. In some instances, nascent rail trail projects find themselves challenged in courts or even ended before they begin. In such cases, it could be that the rails themselves have historical significance that certain entities argue is worth preserving. In others, railroad companies still see the tracks as economically viable and petition authorities to retain their rights to develop them in the future.

This appears to be the case with part of the Nickel Plate elsewhere in the Indianapolis metro. In an application filed with the federal Surface Transportation Board, U.S. Rail Holdings says that applicable laws prioritize rail traffic. How exactly this Indy former railroad right-of-way will be utilized going forward will depend on how decisions by both federal regulators and local municipalities serve to balance competing interests.

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