Chesterton Tribune

Federal transportation chief plugs highspeed rail at Sand Creek summit

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

United States Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is saying all aboard to local business and government leaders on a new vision for a nationwide high-speed transit system that will not only move freight, but create jobs and a better standard of living for thousands of workers.

During a special appearance Thursday at Sand Creek Country Club in Chesterton, LaHood laid out a high-speed rail plan dreamed up by President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden to an audience of about 300. He said Northwest Indiana is “very close” to being part of that vision.

Introducing LaHood was U.S. Representative Pete Visclosky who said LaHood’s efforts span beyond the central United States and across the continent.

“He could be talking in Hawaii today and yet he chooses to be here Northwest Indiana,” joked Visclosky who had the chance to work with LaHood on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for six years.

LaHood called the high-speed rail plan the largest innovation in U.S. transportation since the creation of the Interstate system in the 1950s developed by former President Dwight Eisenhower.

In the next 25 years, about half the time it took to implement the Interstate system, LaHood predicts 80 percent of the nation will be connected with high-speed rail systems.

Appointed by President Obama in January 2009, LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, said he came to Northwest Indiana to talk about three things: jobs, high-speed rail, and transportation.

“Just about everything we do at the (Department of Transportation) is about jobs,” said LaHood.

From the $550 five-year transportation bill, $50 billion will be utilized for high-speed rail development connecting cities throughout the nation. The initiative is likely to produce more than 15,000 jobs each year and more that 50,000 long-term jobs, not including additional jobs spurred by economic development along its corridors.

Even with $50 billion, LaHood said there is not enough federal money available to carry the development and said a lot of support would need to come from the smaller grassroots units of government like Northwest Indiana. Indiana has the chance, he said, to become a “dominant player in the plan.” The Hoosier state has 41 railroads in operation.

With the new transit systems intact, the country would be able to compete more globally. France, Spain and China have led the rail development and have shown new growth in cities and towns along the corridors of their high-speed rail systems. Rail systems are also proven to improve air quality by reducing greenhouse emissions as much as 75 percent.

The new transportation bill has inevitably met its share of “shortsighted” critics, but LaHood insists the rail systems are the least partisan item in the U.S. Congress.

“There are no Democrat or Republican bridges. There are no Democrat or Republican railways,” said LaHood. Politics aside, LaHood said the plan is designed to increase prosperity for generations to follow.

“It’s what we are going to do for our next generation,” he said. As long as people around the nation agree high-speed transit systems are needed, LaHood said they will be a reality just as the interstate roadways.

An analysis showed the rail plan has a 1.8 cost benefit ratio, making $1.80 for every dollar spent and could save $1 billion in federal money per year.

President Obama has been using $8 billion in stimulus money to help push the plan through the starting gate. Visclosky said Northwest Indiana was given a $71.4 million share of the stimulus money that will go to reducing the congested bottleneck on freight lines from Porter to Chicago while at the same time setting itself up for high-speed rail at a later date.

“We are foolish if we don’t capitalize on this opportunity,” said Visclosky.

As part of the Midwest Regional Rail System, Indiana would see three transit routes run through the state from routes originating in Chicago. One route would go to Detroit, the second to Cleveland and the third to Cincinnati.

The routes would limit the number of stops in order to keep up a quick pace. However, officials are planning to establish a satiation somewhere in the region near the Gary/Chicago Airport.

Rail Summit Executive Member Leigh Morris, chairman of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, said since the plan sets up the opportunity to transport more freight, which means more jobs will be created.

“Let’s have those jobs out in Indiana,” said Morris.

Northwest Indiana Forum President Mark Maassel, one of the summit’s other three executive members, said it is unlikely the high-speed transit routes would have a direct effect on the operations of the state’s existing rail lines like the South Shore. He said the lines may see a boost in business if high-speed transit stimulates the economy.

Maassel told the Chesterton Tribune the purpose of the summit isn’t so much as to “sell” the concept of high-speed transit systems, but rather as an opportunity to begin the discussion among those in Northwest Indiana.

Other guest speakers at the rail summit included Gary Eelman, Vice President of Transit, Repower and Leasing at Progress Rail Services in Muncie, and Dr. Dane Miller, founder of Biomet located in Warsaw. Biomet is one of the world’s leading orthopedic products companies that has benefited greatly from enhanced transportation, bringing in sales of more than $2 billion.

 

Posted 2/25/2011