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Indiana high-speed rail supporters rally, await next step

(The following story by Aaron Organ appeared on The News-Sentinel website on January 18, 2010.)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. — It’s tough to find anyone who doesn’t support running high-speed passenger rail in Fort Wayne.

Mayor Tom Henry is all aboard, pun intended. So are city councilmen Tom Didier (R-3rd) and Tom Smith (R-1st), and county commissioner Bill Brown. State Reps. Win Moses (D-Fort Wayne) and Phyllis Pond (R-New Haven), State Sens. Tom Wyss (R-Fort Wayne) and Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn), U.S. Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), and U.S. Rep. Mark Souder (R-3rd) are all ready to lay tracks through town.

All joined, either in person or via representative, the roughly 800 supporters who came to the packed-to-capacity Baker Street Station at Saturday afternoon’s “Rally for Rail.”

Now, those elected officials and residents who share the collective dream are waiting to see if the federal government is on their side, too.

Geoff Paddock, a co-founder and head of the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association, informed a spirited group[ of rail supporters Saturday that the Indiana Department of Transportation has submitted an application to the Federal Rail Association for a $2.8 billion grant that would see the state’s piece in a high-speed rail line from Chicago to Cleveland by way of Gary, Warsaw and Fort Wayne.

Paddock said a decision could come as early as month’s end.

“INDOT applied for a very ambitious amount,” Paddock said. “It shows the Federal Rail Administration that Fort Wayne and the State of Indiana in general are very serious about this issue, and that we see the Chicago-to-Cleveland connection as very important.”

In July, INDOT Commissioner Michael Reed told a small gathering of supporters at the Baker Street Station about INDOT’s plans to submit an application for $49 million in federal stimulus money to back a Chicago-Fort Wayne-Toledo rail route. A half-year later, that figure has more grown substantially, and city, county, state and federal officials feel it could come to pass.

Rail has major economic and societal implications, supporters say.

Besides simply being a stop on a major rail line that could bring unnumbered visitors to Fort Wayne, rail has the potential of producing thousands of jobs because, well, somebody’s got to build the hardware. Fort Wayne’s is a top manufacturing district, according to Souder, and it is home to the fifth-largest steel maker in the country – Steel Dynamics, Inc.

Steel Dynamic, Inc. executive Fred Warner told those gathered Saturday that his company is the only steel plant in the country that can produce quarter-mile length beams meant for high-speed rail, and it produces steel rods, welded rail and welded cross ties – all for high-speed rail.

Essentially, SDI would be on track to seal any rail contract, which would then trickle down large economic dividends to the region.

Rail also is green, supporters say, using one-tenth the amount of fuel per mile. That could mean decreasing dependency on foreign oil.

The benefits of rail are obvious. It seems after a 20-year absence from Fort Wayne (train service left Fort Wayne in 1990 for some 30 miles north in Waterloo), it appears it could be set to return. And, if these Rally for Rail campaigns are any indication, apparently it’s missed.

“We have the support here, we have the enthusiasm in Fort Wayne,” said Paddock. “We’ve been without passenger train service for 20 years, and people are yearning for it again.”

After the assemblage at one point Saturday raucously chanted, “We want rail” inside the Baker Street Station, Paddock silenced the crowd and told them frankly, “We do want rail, and I have some good news for you – we are going to get it.”

Time will tell.

Monday, January 18, 2010

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