Lakeshore Report

Region Rail Projects Put Economic Growth In Full Gear

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May 30, 2014 — It’s a transportation mode of the past, but top state transit officials say rail is what’s going to rev-up revenue in the future.

“We really think rail is the mode of the future. It is safer, it, uh, uses less fuel,” says Karen Hedlund, deputy commissioner of the Federal Railway Administration. “It’s environmentally friendly and the alternative is much more costly. I mean, what we are going to do? Double-deck the Dan Ryan?”

Hedlund and other state officials were at the Amtrak station in Hammond, Ind. Thursday for Indiana Governor Mike Pence to announce $71.4 million to fund the Indiana Gateway Project.

The project is set to improve rail lines between Porter, Ind. and the Illinois state line.

Pence says the project is important to help Indiana maintain its moniker as the crossroads of America. “That means not only highways and byways, but it also means rail,” he says. “We face real challenges here with a growing economy and the capacity we have on our rail to really move passenger and freight through Northwest Indiana easily. It’s going to save time and it’s going to create greater convenience, but I think it’s also going to create economic opportunity and growth uh, for Indiana for decades to come.”

The project was first announced in January 2010 as part of the Obama administration’s nationwide high-speed rail initiative.

The millions will target the highly-trafficked porter junction, where 14amtrak trains and 90 freight trains cross paths daily.

The Indiana Gateway Project will improve eight sections on the railway line, and officials say that means 70 fewer hours of delays annually.

“Which is a lot of time for long freight trains to be blocking crossroads and blocking traffic,” Hedlund says, “It’s a lot of delay and uncertainty for people who are riding passenger trains. When you get on a train, you want it to leave on time; you want it to arrive on time.”

Pence says regional rail projects create infrastructure that encourages more investment. Regional Development Authority CEO Bill Hanna says Northwest Indiana should mimic the spider-web like sprawl of trains throughout Chicago.
“Hard to catch a better meal when you have a one-strand web,” Hanna says. “So this is really about strengthening the spine of the web. That has to be strong in order for this to work.”

That is the thought behind expanding the South Shore rail system into the West Lake Corridor of Lake County.

Officials from the RDA laid out the blueprint for their 20-year plan this week.
They say the new train line could carry up to 5600 riders by 2033. They are counting on those riders to be high-paying commuters working in Chicago and returning home to the region.

“The current riders average about $80,000 a year in annual salaries, per rider,” he says. “These are high-paying jobs we’re talking about. There again is another way to, you know, talk about creative solutions to paying is everybody gains. These are ways that you can pay for things like this without putting into place new taxes that affect local residents.”

Hanna says 17 Lake Co. communities have committed to helping fund half of the project 571 million dollar project. The reminder is expected to come from federal funds and help from the state.

Construction on the Indiana Gateway Project hits full gear this spring and is set to be completed in 2016.

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