PORTAGE — Two things were clear Monday at the first meeting of the Northwest Indiana Train Crossing Task Force — that the blockage of rail crossings across the Region is causing increasing frustration and safety concerns, and that the the federal government is the only place a solution lies.
"It seems to me that's the direction we should be going if we want to do something about this for the Region," Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said of approaching federal agencies.
The task force was formed under the auspices of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, prompted by McDermott in October when he expressed frustration with the number of extended freight train stoppages in Hammond, and with the loss of any ability to penalize the railroads after an Indiana Supreme Court decision struck down laws allowing the practice.
More than 50 people attended the first meeting at the NIRPC offices.
Hammond Police Capt. Jeff Long said the blockages cause emergency services vehicles difficulty getting around the city; that students at Scott Elementary School, near one of the most notorious locations for blockages, often cross the tracks by going between stopped rail cars; and that frustrated drivers' road rage causes traffic safety problems.
"Those are things you can't put a stat on, but it causes people to drive recklessly," he said of the latter problem.
Officials from East Chicago, Hobart, the Lake County Parks Department, Ogden Dunes and Dune Acres, as well as commuters and business people, were among others expressing similar frustrations at the meeting. Public transit disruption and air quality concerns caused by congestion were also raised.
NIRPC's Mitch Barloga said the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency, or CREATE, program is engaged in a 70-project, $4.4 billion effort to alleviate rail congestion in Chicago, which has some implications for Northwest Indiana, and he noted the state's recent award of Local Trax grants that will send $44 million in grants to grade-separation projects at rail crossings in Gary, Hammond, Hobart, Schererville and LaPorte.
But, "there's still a very big need in this region," Barloga said.
Local officials spoke of fruitless attempts to engage the major freight railroads in addressing the problem, both regarding road crossings and bike trail crossings.
Melissa Porter, the chief of staff at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and a former staff member at the Federal Railroad Administration, gave the new task force several recommendations, starting with the idea of approaching the STB and FRA.
"That's the place I always tell people to go," she said. She also recommended continuing to pursue any available state and federal funding for grade separations, and to lobby federal legislators for specific help with the problem during the upcoming reauthorization of the federal Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, the five-year funding authorization for transportation projects.
"It's a nationwide problem," Porter said of crossing blockages. She suggested working "to try to get something in law that would make the Federal Railroad Administration or the STB focus on it specifically."
The task force agreed to meet again at 1:30 p.m. March 11 at NIRPC headquarters at 6100 Southport Road. Between now and then, NIRPC staff will work on ways to gain leverage with federal agencies, ask federal legislators to get involved, and identify specific, data-backed goals in their communities. McDermott said Hammond's first goal will be to alleviate blockages near Scott Elementary.
"This isn't like a support group where we all gather around and complain to each other," McDermott said. "I think we should all have identifiable goals about where we're heading with this task force."