When U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Tuesday that he is stepping down, the political world focused on his status as the lone Republican still in President Barack Obama's first-term Cabinet. I focused on what this means for Northwest Indiana and the south suburbs.
Indiana is the Crossroads of America, the slogan goes, but that could just as easily apply to the Calumet Region. A large percentage of nation's interstate truck traffic goes through this area, I've been told. The rail traffic here, with Chicago as a major hub, reinforces transportation's influence in shaping our region's economy.
I was fortunate to hear LaHood speak about rail traffic in Northwest Indiana when he spoke at the Rail Delivers Jobs summit in Chesterton two years ago. The transportation secretary gave a moving speech, appropriately enough, on 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 said.
"Get your act together, give us some partners, you'll be players," said LaHood, a former Illinois congressman.
That's no easy task, considering the balkanization that afflicts the entire area, which then strains our relationship with the rest of the state. That's true whether you're talking about Illinois or Indiana.
Obama's vision for high-speed rail was included in the federal stimulus program aimed at putting Americans back to work during the Great Recession. Railroads being railroads, with their linear mindset that can make it difficult to think outside the box, progress has been slow.
The Porter Junction tangle in Porter is a stumbling block for this dream. Last I heard, the only progress toward getting high-speed trains through this sliver of Northwest Indiana was to fund a study.
LaHood's the kind of guy who wouldn't hesitate to get things started.
"LaHood has been remarkably aggressive at the Department of Transportation, including requiring airlines to list government taxes in featured fares, post fees for services on their websites, and heavily strictly enforced fines for lost luggage and other passenger inconvenience," said Arthur I. Cyr, a professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis. Cyr's expertise includes studying the Chicago area's economy.
LaHood also spoke of his support for the Illiana Expressway in March 2010.
Cyr told me LaHood's appointment "reflects our region's vital role in transportation."
Hopefully, LaHood's successor will continue to grease the wheels -- and rails -- of transportation progress here.