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Opinion: Hoosier state is on track for high-speed rail service

(The following column by Randy Wade appeared on the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette website on December 29, 2009. M. Wade is passenger rail director of the Great Lakes Division at HNTB Corp.)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. — Last summer, the Associated Press reported an anecdote about Baudilio Tejerina, a native of Spain who works for Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Tejerina takes the Amtrak train to Lafayette regularly to work with faculty at Purdue. He said it would be “fantastic” to see the rail line upgraded to higher speed service.

“It would be something that belongs to this century,” said Tejerina, who is used to the high-speed trains that run throughout Europe and wonders why there isn’t a similar system in the United States.

Many Hoosiers wonder the same thing. They can take encouragement from the fact that their state is playing a major role in the development of high-speed rail, the most important advancement in our country’s transportation network since the interstate highway system.

On Oct. 2, the Indiana Department of Transportation submitted an application for $2.816 billion in federal stimulus money to implement high-speed passenger rail service from Chicago to Cleveland through Gary and Fort Wayne.

Indiana is also seeking $71.4 million in federal stimulus high-speed rail funding for track improvements to Norfolk Southern’s Chicago Line between Porter and the Illinois state line, which supports current Amtrak service.

The project would address “the single most delay-prone intercity rail passenger corridor in the country,” in a way that would relieve congestion and contribute to the development of a regional high-speed rail corridor, the state said in its funding application.

Indiana is one of nine states that have joined forces to establish the Midwest Regional Rail System. This initiative, in development for 13 years, calls for a 3,000-mile regional network that will be hubbed in Chicago. Trains will operate at speeds of up to 110 mph to connect towns and cities along key 100- to 500-mile corridors, using existing rights of way.

Three of the identified corridors – Chicago to Detroit, Chicago to Cleveland and Chicago to Cincinnati – pass through Indiana. The Chicago-to-Cleveland route will run through Fort Wayne, and the Chicago-to-Cincinnati route will run through Indianapolis.

Job creation

The Midwest Regional Rail System will provide a long-needed boost to mobility and economic development. It will provide an efficient, convenient, environmentally friendly way to take a business trip or vacation. It will save fuel and cut back on carbon emissions.

A 2006 study by Transportation Economics & Management Systems and HNTB Corp. provided a detailed study of the economic benefits that will result from the Midwest Regional Rail System.

Those benefits will be huge, especially in the areas surrounding train stations. On an aggregate basis, the Midwest Regional Rail System will create about 58,000 new jobs, including 4,540 in Indiana, as the system is built over 10 years. Indiana urban household income is expected to increase by $86 million, and greater development potential is expected to boost Indiana property values by $350 million.

The well-coordinated effort by Indiana and other Midwestern states dovetails with national goals. The federal government has taken a significant step by setting aside $8 billion in stimulus money for high-speed rail.

In addition, President Obama has proposed $1 billion a year for five years to fund high-speed rail. The House and Senate have proposed $4 billion a year and $1.2 billion a year, respectively.

Those proposals are indeed welcome. But to get where we need to go, there must be a strong, multiyear federal funding program for high-speed rail, like the monumental effort that gave us our interstate highway system.

We need a firm commitment by our elected leaders in Washington to complete this task that is so pivotal to our transportation infrastructure and economic well-being.

To do otherwise will shortchange the future of our state, our region and our country.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

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