For more than two years, hikers traversing the Tecumseh Trail have had to stray from the original path due to a closure at the Indian Hill Road railroad crossing.
The trail is one of the longest hiking trails in the state, and the detour has caused hikers to take a 5- to 6-mile walking detour around the railroad crossing following its closure two years ago at the request of the Indiana Rail Road.
In the spring of 2020, the railroad company asked the Brown County Commissioners to close the crossing, which is near the State Road 45 end of Indian Hill Road, due to safety concerns related to line of sight and how steep the embankment is leading up to the crossing.
When that happened, it cut off access from Indian Hill Road to the highway.
Since the closing, Tecumseh Trail users have continued to lobby to open the crossing to pedestrian traffic, which now may happen at a different location.
The Brown County Commissioners announced at their Oct. 5 meeting that they have chosen to pursue a solution with Indiana Department of Transportation, which would allow pedestrians to legally cross the railroad tracks at State Road 45 in Trevlac.
Commissioner Diane Biddle said that in discussions with Indiana Rail Road, they agreed to help reestablish the crossing on Indian Hill for pedestrian traffic only, but at a cost higher than $155,000, which the county would pay.
The railroad’s total financial investment would be more than $400,000, because of construction costs.
The commissioners recently learned that INDOT will be making repairs to the railroad crossing at State Road 45, just south of Branstetter Road near Trevlac, in the next five years.
Being an INDOT project, INDOT would also pay for a pedestrian crossing to be added to the area, with no cost incurred to the county or the railroad.
“We are going to pursue that option since it does not encumber the county taxpayer for additional funding on that project and we’re going to ask the trail association to also partner with us to try to see what INDOT will do,” she said.
“I think we’re going to try to do that first, if we have no buy-in from INDOT, of course then we’ll reexamine our other options. At this point, that is our least costly option.”
Biddle said on Oct. 5 that she did not know the time frame, but it is on a projected schedule.
She added that in conversations with INDOT and Indiana Rail Road, INDOT suggested the commissioners, trail association, Indiana Rail Road and the Legislative Trail Caucus at the statehouse to provide letters of support asking to move up the crossing upgrade.
Biddle said that in looking at trail documents and the trail itself, they found that the Hoosier Hiker Council has a proposed reroute map on their website.
With the proposed reroute, once a pedestrian crossing is added to State Road 45, hikers could come straight down Bear Creek over the trail, then straight into the Sycamore Land Trust’s property, which is already on the Hoosier Hiker Council website as the proposed detour.
They could then cross back over to Indian Hill Road.
Whether or not that is adopted as the new trail is up to hiking and trail associations.
“Commissioners at this point are basically partnering with these entities to try and find a solution,” Biddle said.
The commissioners plan to make inquiries into Sycamore Land Trust, who owns the property which the suggested reroute crosses, to establish the trail in that area and bring it back to Indian Hill, south of the crossing owned by Indiana Rail Road.
Randall Pflueger of the Knobstone Trail Hiking Association was present at the meeting on Oct. 5 and asked commissioners why they did not consider the option presented to commissioners by the association in August.
The trail association offered an alternative proposal for signage at the crossing at Indian Hill Road, which brought the cost to just under $2,000, which Pflueger said was in compliance with state and federal laws.
Brown County Highway Superintendent Mike Magner said that what was proposed by the trail association were standards that assumed a flat ground and square crossing, which is not the case at Indian Hill Road, where Magner said there is a “severe hump and a skew.”
Commissioner President Jerry Pittman said that a house built in 1940 probably will not meet any current building codes in Brown County, but that doesn’t mean you can build a house like that today.
“You have to meet the standards that are currently here,” he said.
“If you want to open a new crossing, reopening that was like creating a new crossing. You’re going to have to bring everything up to the latest standards. Unfortunately it’s been closed, so if you’re going to reopen it, you’re going to spend a lot of money to do it. We have the opportunity to get no-cost upgrade to open a different crossing at 45.”
“The bottom line is that the commissioners have chosen to go the direction we are going as the most cost effective, efficient way to deal with it,” Biddle said.
Pflueger said the trail association’s interest is entirely at the Indian Hill Road/Indiana Rail Road crossing.
Biddle said that in order to legally accomplish reopening that particular crossing, the association would need a separate easement from Indiana Rail Road, who owns 50 feet of land on either side of the rail road, which they should have already had to cross the private railroad.
”Whoever established that trail just assumed that they could cross it. That is … the root of the problem that we’re dealing with now.”
Mike Moga, the commissioners’ attorney, said that the county made an agreement both with INDOT and Indiana Rail Road when the crossing was closed.
While the county can apply to open crossing back up, Indiana Rail Road will have chance to appeal as it is “their railroad,” Moga said.
“With this agreement in hand and the fact that they can appeal it, it would be very difficult for us to petition INDOT to open up this crossing. That’s why the commissioners have come up with what I think is a very thoughtful idea to create pedestrian crossing without having to use county funds on State Road 45,” he said.
“This is an option we’re exploring right now,” Biddle said.
‘A viable option’
In July the Knobstone Hiking Trail Association legal adviser Tony Abbott formally requested the commissioners amend the resolution closing the crossing to state it was intended to prohibit vehicular traffic on that section of Indian Hill Road and at the crossing, but not pedestrian traffic.
During the commissioners meeting in July, Abbott said that the criteria that was used to close the railroad crossing relates to vehicular traffic only, including the alignment of the road and the railroad, and the angle of the intersection of an alignment at the crossing along with the number of vehicles and posted speed limit for the crossing.
In the railroad’s company letter to the commissioners it states that if the commissioners determine the crossing does not meet the criteria for closure or that it does meet the criteria, but “a compelling reason has been shown to exist” that the crossing remain open they should reach out to Peter Ray, the vice president of engineering for the rail road company, to start the appeal process.
Abbott then said that severing the Tecumseh Trail could have been identified as a compelling reason if the commissioners had held a public hearing before the crossing was closed. Under Indiana Code, a public hearing should be held not more than 60 days after a petition is received to close a railroad crossing. Following a hearing a government unit and the rail road company could then agree to close a crossing if a reason was not identified to keep it open during the hearings.
Abbot said they were not asking the board to vacate its resolution, they wanted the board to clarify its resolution and adopt the amendment indicating that it closes the crossing and road to vehicular traffic, but it was never intended to include pedestrian or foot traffic.
He continued that there are “some potential hazards” when a vehicle uses the crossing, such as the angle of the embankment going up to the track. Despite these hazards, the railroad company reported there had not been any accidents reported at that crossing in the last five years.
He said that a person on foot could approach that embankment and those tracks cautiously, listening and seeing if there was a risk of injury.
At the meeting earlier this month, Brown County resident Maddison Miller asked if the commissioners were rejecting the proposed amendment to the agreement, and if so why?
Biddle said that they were rejecting it as it was not prepared by their attorney, but a special interest group.
Miller asked if the commissioners’ attorneys considered or reviewed the amendment as a viable option.
Moga said that he had seen the amendment and that if they have to go back to the idea of opening the crossing at Indian Hill Road, then they will review the amendment and make adjustments to it as needed.
“As of right now, after discussions with INDOT, the railroad and all parties involved, we’re choosing to take this path and opening the crossing at State Road 45,” Moga said.
“Right now that’s our update we can give, we’re still working with INDOT and the railroad to see if that’s a viable option and we will give a further update after we’ve had those discussions.”