Polar Bear Express train has left our station

Dear Editor:

On Tuesday, Nov. 21 I addressed the City Council during the public comments period. Unfortunately, I was only able to deliver half of these comments as I ran up against the three minute limit. If I had had the time, this is what I would have said:

With the holidays approaching I’m reminded of the fact that the Polar Bear Express isn’t running in Noblesville this year. It’s the second year in a row that that cultural experience is silent and absent. This year, the Indiana Transportation Museum has taken its show up north to a couple of communities that see the potential in running an excursion train like that for its residents. What used to run between Noblesville and Fishers will run between Kokomo and Logansport, which have embraced the railroad in a way that we don’t.

The shame of all this is that it wasn’t the marketplace that decided the fate of the Polar Bear Express. It was a government decision. For years, Hamilton County residents paid $35 each to ride the train for a few hours and give our kids that unique experience that is quickly fading from the American landscape. And they sold out at that price. This year they’re selling first class tickets to riders up north for $60 (regular fare is still $35) and they think they can get it. Ordinarily the ITM would gross about $800,000 on the Polar Bear Express, net about $500,000, which they would then spend in our community. That spending is now going elsewhere. And who knows how much additional spending happened before and after people got on the train. There is obviously a market for these excursion rides . . . and ITM proved that year after year.

I realize there is a plan to establish a new excursion line that goes north. I am willing to wait and see what happens with that plan, even though every proposal submitted to the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority, except the one subsidized by the government, maintained that traveling north isn’t economically viable. The business people who crunched the numbers determined that the market is south. The potential is south. There’s just more happening in Indianapolis than there is in Atlanta or Tipton.

Kicking ITM off the tracks was necessary to move ahead with a plan by our mayors to turn the railroad into a trail. The federal Surface Transportation Board is now considering whether to let railbanking proceed and their decision is complicated somewhat by the fact that this was still an operating railroad. Converting a rail to trail is pretty common occurrence around the country but communities usually wait until the railroad is abandoned. Because this wasn’t they have to go through an abandonment process. These are usually rubber stamp decisions that elicit a handful of comments. This one is an exception: more than 100 comments have been filed and the STB seems to still be taking them.

A few weeks ago I addressed the County Council with these same comments and concerns. It turns out they are a bit upset with the way all of this has been handled. They feel, as many residents do, that they’ve been left out of the discussion. And some of them feel strongly about the train. They claim they invited other interested parties, including Noblesville and Fishers officials, to a meeting and nobody showed. They’re a little sore about that. And, they’re not the only ones who are upset. The whole episode has been disappointing, starting with the public meeting in Fishers where the mayor didn’t show and the format wasn’t conducive to public comment, to the public meeting in this chamber where the mayor did show, and the format did encourage public comment, but even though every comment that night except one was in favor of the train, there wasn’t a single change to the plan. It’s like the public comments never even happened and were just a formality.

So, here’s my point: The county councilors said, although they are just as frustrated as we (the people who want to save the train) are, their hands are tied. Until someone comes to them for money they have no way of expressing their displeasure. I understand their point, but as elected officials, I suggested they do have influence, and we would appreciate them exerting that influence on this process. I’m asking the same thing of you. I realize you haven’t had to come forward and take a stand on this issue, and I don’t know where each of you stands on it anyway, but if you think we’re making a mistake by ripping out these rails I would appreciate it if you would express that, let people know what you think. If you think a trail is the best and highest use of this land, let that be known as well.

A couple of final comments:

I find it ironic, and a bit inconsistent, that we just got a cultural district designation for our downtown, and we are proceeding to remove one of the most visible cultural icons we have downtown. It says, right on the Noblesville Cultural Arts Commission page of the Indiana Arts Commission website, that the Indiana Transportation Museum provides immersion experiences for guests on restored, historic trains year round. We probably ought to change that. And running the trains north doesn’t do much for downtown.

Secondly, a community’s heritage doesn’t usually disappear overnight. It happens slowly, we chip away at it, one piece at a time. We take out the opera house, and the theater, and the grain elevator, a historic house here and there one at a time, the train. Eventually they’re all gone and you can’t point to one event that ruined it but in the end it’s gone. If we’re serious about being hipstoric, then we have to stop tearing out the history. We have to be good stewards and start preserving it.

Finally, we live in one of the most Republican counties in the nation. Every one of you (City Council) are Republicans. Republicans are the party of free enterprise. Why are we purposefully intervening in the free market here and taking out tracks that are needed for a business that’s served our community for more than a generation at no cost to taxpayers, so we can take on a project that going to cost us millions? You are eventually going to be asked to pay for this. I ask you to speak up now before it’s too late.

Mike Corbett


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