FRA Chief Szabo touts Grow America at Rail Summit

2014-06-06T16:15:00Z 2014-06-09T14:30:10Z FRA Chief Szabo touts Grow America at Rail SummitKeith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com nwitimes.com
June 06, 2014 4:15 pm  • 

Federal Rail Administrator Joseph Szabo on Friday issued a call for the formation of Regional Rail Development Authorities under the Grow America Act, pointing to Chicago's CREATE program as the perfect example of why they are needed.

"Chicago with the CREATE program, it never made sense to me why that ended at the Illinois/Indiana border," Szabo told about 200 rail executives and others at Rail Summit 2014 at Chicago's Union League Club.

The Grow America Act is the Obama Administration's four-year transportation plan that must still win Congressional approval. It contains about $19 billion in total for rail projects and includes a provision for Regional Rail Development Authorities to promote local input for rail projects.

"Not only is Chicago one of the most congested rail corridors in the country, but Northwest Indiana is somewhat infamous for the bottlenecks through the Indiana Gateway," Szabo said in comments later.

The Indiana Gateway is the name of a combined freight rail and Amtrak corridor from Porter into Chicago, where a $70 million construction project is underway to reduce freight and passenger rail conflicts that lead to long delays for both.

The Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE) aims to reduce freight, passenger rail and crossing delays through the construction of grade separations and other projects. It has completed some large projects but has fallen short of its original goals, often because it has not been able to raise the requisite funds.

The Grow America Act would authorize the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish Regional Rail Development Authorities in consultation with state governors, according to information at the U.S. Department of Transportation's website. The authorities will have the power to plan for and undertake regional corridor development activities and they would be eligible for certain grants.

Szabo was followed by Rail Summit 2014's keynote speaker Indiana Secretary of Commerce Victor Smith, who right away told the audience he was a salesman who loved his product.

As Secretary of Commerce and CEO of the Indiana Economic Development Corp., Smith's product is the state of Indiana and all it has to offer business and industry.

In a club catering to business elites in a state with a horrendous fiscal situation, Smith touted the Indiana's $2 billion reserve fund, balanced budget, low taxes and business-friendly regulatory environment.

"We not only talk the talk in Indiana," Smith said. "But we have the cash to walk the walk."

As proof he cited a string of recent successes including landing a GE jet engine advanced manufacturing facility in Lafayette and the Senate Avenue Intermodal Terminal in Indianapolis that takes rail shipments direct from the Pacific coast, bypassing the congested Chicago corridor.

On Friday, he invited his listeners to grow and expand rail service and their businesses in Indiana.

This year's Rail Summit ran under the theme of Energy, Manufacturing, and Rail in the Global Marketplace. Among it's 19 sponsors were the Valparaiso Economic Development Corp., Indiana Harbor Belt, Southshore Freight, NIPSCO and the Chicago Southland Economic Development Corp.

In comments after the meeting, Smith said the state has a pipeline full of prospective economic development projects, including in Northwest Indiana.

He said the potential for building up an intermodal facility at Kingsbury in LaPorte County remains enormous. The key will be finding the right combination of shippers, railroads and industries.

The project has moved by fits and starts since before the Great Recession, when many thought it might become the site of an intermodal facility providing hundreds of jobs comparable to the one in Joliet, Ill.

The IEDC also remains ready and willing to help with any proposals coming out of Gary/Chicago International Airport, Smith said. A public-private partnership was recently forged there with an airport operator and development company.

"The airport is a great asset that needs to be utilized better," Smith said. "If fully utilized, I definitely see that as a catalyst for Gary and the entire area."

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