HAMMOND | Gov. Mike Pence, railroad and federal officials ceremoniously tapped the first rail spikes Thursday on the $71.4 million Indiana Gateway project that will help speed freight and passenger rail through Northwest Indiana.
"I say let's blow the horn, let's get the Gateway open, and be on the way to a more prosperous Indiana," Pence said at the Hammond-Whiting Amtrak station between the freight trains rumbling through just 20 feet behind the podium.
Pence was joined by Deputy Federal Railroad Administrator Karen Hedlund, who fondly recalled traveling from the South Side as a girl to eat with her family at Phil Schmidt's within sight of the Hammond-Whiting station.
The Indiana Gateway will cut delays at crossings by 70 hours annually and contribute to shaving one hour off the Chicago-to-Detroit Amtrak route, Hedlund said.
"Our passenger rail program has ushered in an entirely new era for rail service in this area, but there's more to do," she said.
Hedlund touted the Obama Administration's recently introduced transportation plan, dubbed the GROW AMERICA Act. The act would provide the predictable, dedicated funding passenger and freight rail need to grow over the next four years, she said.
The Indiana Gateway was the only Indiana project approved under the Obama Administration's high-speed rail initiative, which was a key part of the administration's stimulus effort to lift the U.S. economy out of the Great Recession four years ago. The project will create about 700 construction jobs, according to INDOT's application.
Setting politics aside for the day, Pence and Hedlund praised each other's efforts on the Indiana Gateway. Pence also praised Amtrak officials and others for helping keep the Hoosier State Amtrak route running in Indiana.
Norfolk Southern railroad's efforts also were key to making the Indiana Gateway into reality, Pence said.
"This will help our dispatchers to move trains better through this entire area, which will help all of us in the long run," said Norfolk Southern Assistant Vice President for Operation Planning Jeff Harris.
The Indiana Gateway consists of eight rail construction and signal projects stretching from Porter Junction, in Porter, to the Illinois state line. The construction projects include the building of high-speed crossovers and a new passing siding at Porter Junction.
All work on the Indiana Gateway is expected to be complete in 2016.
Porter Junction sees 14 Amtrak trains and 90 freight trains cross through it daily, often leading to long delays, according to the INDOT application for the project. It has been cited as one of the nation's most congested rail junctions.
An agreement was reached with Norfolk Southern railroad on the work to be done more than a year ago. Most of the tracks involved in the Indiana Gateway are owned by the freight railroad.