CHESTERTON | U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood made an impassioned pitch Thursday to 300 Northwest Indiana business leaders to become partners with the Obama administration when it comes to high-speed rail.
"If Indiana gets its act together, you could be a dominant player in this plan in this region of the country," LaHood told them at a Rail Delivers Jobs summit in Chesterton.
Getting the five-year reauthorization of the federal transportation bill passed by Congress, with the Obama administration's $53 billion request for high-speed rail intact, will be key to getting the job done, LaHood said.
"Rail delivers jobs, and let's make sure those jobs stay in Indiana," the former seven-term Republican congressman from Illinois said.
LaHood spoke to business leaders at Sand Creek Country Club in an event hosted by the Northwest Indiana Forum and Valparaiso Economic Development Corp.
"What I find so exciting is the opportunity we have to bring in passenger rail and also to bring the freight system forward at the same time," Northwest Indiana Forum CEO Mark Maassel said.
LaHood's pep talk came as budget-cutting moves by Midwest governors, along with anti-union bills in state houses, are roiling the Rust Belt, with protesters camping out in state capitols and Democratic legislators running for the hills.
Newly elected Republican governors in three states, Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio, have rejected federal high-speed rail funds secured by their predecessors of the opposite party.
"We will not be dissuaded by elected officials who are so short-sighted that they don't want to do this," LaHood said.
In fact, he said states like Indiana now have the chance to pick up those rejected funds for their own high-speed rail projects. But he also made it clear Indiana has to help itself with more vigorous support for the Midwest Regional Rail System, which would link nine states with a comprehensive high-speed rail system.
Three of its proposed routes would start in Chicago and come through Indiana on their way to Detroit, Cleveland and Cincinnati. The system also includes a planned station for those three routes near the Gary/Chicago International Airport.
So far, Indiana has landed just $71.4 million in high-speed rail funds for a plan to improve freight and passenger tracks from Porter to the Illinois state line. That compares to the $1.23 billion Illinois has received to start building a high-speed rail line between Chicago and St. Louis.
LaHood was brought to Northwest Indiana by U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., who said he and LaHood, despite the difference in parties, were frequently partners in moving important legislation through committee during LaHood's years as a congressman.
Like others at the summit, Visclosky made the point Northwest Indiana already is one of the most rail-intensive regions in the nation.
"We are foolish if we don't capitalize on this opportunity," Visclosky said.
The move to high-speed rail also received boost from two prominent Hoosier business leaders at the summit: Biomet Inc. founder Dane Miller and Gary Eelman, vice president of transit, repower, and leasing at Progress Rail Services in Muncie, which is a Caterpillar subsidiary.