PORTAGE — The U.S. House Appropriations Committee next week is expected to approve a 37% increase in federal funding for rail safety and grade-separation projects that could help minimize traffic back-ups caused by the numerous train lines crisscrossing Northwest Indiana.
U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, a senior member of the Democratic-controlled committee, on Wednesday said he supports the plan to allocate $350 million to the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program, compared to the $255 million the program received last year and the $330 million proposed by Republican President Donald Trump.
"That has a long way to go (before becoming law)," Visclosky told the Northwest Indiana Rail Crossing Task Force. "But hopefully it represents a larger pot of money for local communities, counties and states to draw upon."
Visclosky said he's also requested the transportation funding legislation include language directing the Federal Railroad Administration and Surface Transportation Board to work with states and localities to specifically address the issue of blocked rail crossings.
Blocked crossings are the bete noire of the task force that was created through the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission following last year's Indiana Supreme Court ruling striking down a longstanding state law that permitted local police to ticket and fine railroad companies when stopped train cars blocked a street crossing for longer than 10 minutes.
The task force leader, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., said it seems like the frequency of blocked crossings in Hammond has gotten much worse since the Supreme Court decision, and he's hoping that by working as a region that Northwest Indiana might have a better chance of getting the rail companies to change their ways.
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Representatives of Canadian National, Norfolk Southern and CSX attending the meeting did not commit to ending the practice of blocking street crossings with stopped trains.
They said it sometimes is necessary to change crew members and to stop trains for other safety reasons. And, they said delays are largely unavoidable due to modern-day train lengths often exceeding a mile, combined with Indiana's nearly 6,000 public road-rail intersections.
But the rail company leaders did express support for efforts to consolidate and eliminate little-used crossings; to build overpasses or underpasses, as appropriate, to separate car and train traffic; and promised to continue engaging with Northwest Indiana officials to consider changes that benefit everyone.
"If there are localized, granular solutions that we can implement, without disrupting the railroad — recognizing that we're a network, so if we make a change here we could be affecting traffic upstream and downstream for hundreds of miles — we're happy to try to implement things that would help alleviate the problem," said Derek Sublette, Norfolk Southern manager of government relations.
Tom Livingston, CSX regional vice president, agreed. He said the company "would always rather fix it voluntarily than fight it. We think that's the most productive."