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Rail development a hot topic

(The following article by Debra Gruszecki was posted on the Munster Times website on June 16.)

MUNSTER, Ind. -- Ten years ago, when the topic of high-speed rail development in Indiana came up, some envisioned elevated platforms on which a train would operate.

That image is not what comes to mind now.

Rather, high-speed rail aficionados now hold up conceptual drawings of a proposed Gary/Chicago International Airport passenger air and rail terminal.

The vision to operate high-speed rail and the South Shore commuter passenger rail tracks into the airport terminal appears as an option in the Federal Aviation Administration's environmental review involving a proposal to lengthen runways and relocate the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway tracks.

"Experience the travel efficiencies of the Midwest Regional Passenger Rail System," says a colorful brochure the Indiana High Speed Rail Association uses to tout the proposed passenger air and rail terminal.

Roger Sims, president of the association, said roughly $221,000 has come through the nonprofit organization, which was set up to advance the high-speed rail initiative.

"We have spent that money wisely," Sims said during a luncheon to celebrate the association's 10th anniversary and mark the progress it has made.

Gary Mayor Scott King concurred, telling its Executive Director Dennis Hodges, "Your work is not in vain."

King, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Midwest high-speed rail task force, said every drawing he's seen includes Gary as a crossover for routes from Indianapolis and Detroit into Chicago.

"It would be a great reliever for airports," King said, noting the need to continue to pressure federal and state lawmakers for rail investment.

After recalling that high-speed rail initiatives had the attention of Congress prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, King said money for war is a top priority now. That said, King recalled when the nation was in the throes of the Civil War and President Lincoln bucked opposition to complete the transcontinental railroad.

"We need to take a page from that book and replicate it," King said.

Morton Marcus, retired director of Kelley School of Business for Indiana University and a columnist for The Times, was a keynote speaker during the anniversary luncheon. He blamed the "silo effect" on the fact high-speed rail has not advanced as rapidly as it has in Europe.

People think in narrow terms, Marcus said, pointing to a mind-set toward urban sprawl and commuter habits that involve point-to-point transportation in a car.

"High-speed rail represents efficient use of human time," he said, but it won't work until the passion is there to put the support systems for it in place.

One needs to think of rail expansion in terms of connectivity, Marcus added. He warned, Indiana towns along the line -- spots like Shelbyville, Greenville or Vincennes -- might not climb on board unless it has a stake in it.

"We have to think of intrastate high-speed rail, as much as we think of interstate high-speed rail," he said.

Hodges said a law firm will call on Congress for money to implement the Midwest Regional Passenger Rail System, which has a route through Indiana.

The association plans to develop public/private partnerships, Hodges said, and work will continue to procure 10 percent of state planning and research money for mandated environmental studies involving the rail initiative.

"It's time to raise the bar," Hodges said, noting plans to get elected officials and the business community to sign onto the project. "It's an economic development issue. It's a part of our future."

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

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