Rail czar brings Obama's push to Northwest Indiana

Szabo says $71 million will help relieve Porter delays
2010-01-30T00:05:00Z Rail czar brings Obama's push to Northwest IndianaBy Keith Benman - keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com

Federal Railroad Administrator and former Riverdale Mayor Joseph Szabo rolled into Gary on Friday to push the Obama administration's case for $8 billion in stimulus for high-speed rail projects in Indiana and 30 other states.

"President (Barack) Obama is the first president in 150 years, since Abraham Lincoln and the Transcontinental Railroad, to have a vision for rail," Szabo told about 230 community and business leaders who gathered at Gary/Chicago International Airport.

It was day two of the administration's blitz to convince taxpayers of the wisdom of shoveling out billions of dollars more in stimulus to rebuild U.S. rail infrastructure. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden started the blitz by announcing the $8 billion in grants Thursday in Tampa, Fla.

The luncheon event at the Gary airport attracted the elite of Northwest Indiana's business community as well as five European trade delegations and executives from major manufacturers including France-based Alstom and Germany-based Siemens.

Szabo touted the $71 million that will be put into projects to alleviate train stoppages and delays at an Amtrak and freight junction in Porter. The junction was cited as the single-most delay-prone corridor in the nation in the Indiana Department of Transportation's application for the project.

"It's a great example of the kind of thinking and planning we are looking at that produces a win-win for everyone," Szabo said.

Amtrak Vice President Stephen Gardner announced that the government-owned corporation will be making improvements to Michigan tracks that will allow trains there to be operating at 110 mph by the end of this year. Trains on those tracks passing through Northwest Indiana on the way to Chicago will have significantly shorter travel times because of the high speeds and Porter improvements, Gardner said.

In addition, Michigan received $40 million in high-speed rail stimulus funds for station renovations and other projects.

Friday's luncheon was hosted by the Indiana High Speed Rail Association in support of the Midwest Regional Rail System, a decades-old project to improve speeds and frequency of passenger service in nine Midwestern states. The Obama administration announced $2.6 billion in funding for the Midwest plan Thursday.

The Friday's event also gave Szabo and INDOT Commissioner Michael Reed their first chance to answer questions about why Indiana's application for $2.8 billion to build a high-speed rail route from Chicago to Cleveland failed to win stimulus dollars.

"It wasn't a failure," Szabo said after the luncheon. "On the contrary, we were excited to see the application come in because it's a very important part of the vision for the Midwest Regional Rail plan."

Reed spoke directly to the rejection of Indiana's application at the luncheon, saying INDOT will confer with the Federal Rail Administration and others on why the application came up short.

"We were obviously disappointed we did not get selected for the Chicago-to-Cleveland high-speed rail route, but we will continue to pursue that," Reed said.

Indiana's application requested more money than was won by any single high-speed rail corridor project. A California high-speed rail corridor won the top dollar amount of $2.3 billion. It will be used to start work on a Sacramento-to-San Diego route that could someday feature 200 mph trains.

The Chicago-to-Cleveland route would have featured a major station stop at Gary airport that could have created up to 600 permanent jobs, according to the Indiana Department of Transportation's application.

Railroad officials were adamant Friday that a multimodal transport center at the Gary airport, which would include South Shore commuter rail, remains in the long-term plan.

"A rail line will come by this airport no matter what alternative is chosen," Amtrak Assistant Vice President Michael Franke said.

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