It's time for high-speed rail 

No, it’s past time, but still . . .

Saw Michael Moore’s new movie, Sicko, last week. On the surface, Sicko is about the mess we’ve made of health care in this country. How private insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry and the American Medical Association have teamed up to create a service model that’s guilty of all the inefficiencies and unfairness they want us to associate with government-run programs.

But like all of Moore’s films, Sicko has a larger theme. It’s ultimately about the tunes we Americans have taken to whistling to reassure ourselves as we pass the graveyard where the myth of our country’s superiority-in-all-things lies buried.

People cling to this myth like it was a toupee in a windstorm. They have so much invested in it that they are deeply offended when Moore pokes fun by suggesting that marrying a Canadian may be a good move, or that French doctors actually make house calls.

They’re doubtless offended by me, for even bringing this up.

In one respect, though, hope may be on the horizon. It’s beginning to appear that high gasoline prices, a desire to free ourselves from Persian Gulf oil and the recognition that something has to be done about pollution are combining to revive political interest in rail transportation. In Washington, D.C., a bill that could provide millions of dollars to states to improve or establish high-speed rail service has been unanimously approved by the Senate Commerce Committee and is on its way to the Senate floor for a debate that could take place before this month is over.

If passed, this legislation could begin to create the kind of transportation system that Europeans enjoy. Among the routes being considered for development is one that would connect Chicago with Indianapolis and Cincinnati. Trains on this route would travel at 110 mph. The total travel time between Chicago and Cincinnati, including stops at Gary, Lafayette and Indianapolis, would be four hours.

There was an article in The Indianapolis Star about this. It referred to a 2003 study done by the Midwest Regional Rail System, a cooperative effort involving Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration and nine states, including Indiana. This study found that a high-speed route linking Chicago, Indy and Cincinnati would be one of the 10 most profitable lines in the country.

As anyone who’s traveled on the Megabus along this route will attest, a high-speed rail service connecting these cities would be a hit with business people, tourists and scholars. It would also spur development of a major airport in Gary.

On the same day this story ran, The Star’s John Ketzenberger wrote a column about a conference on regionalism held at Barnes & Thornburg.

This gathering identified the Great Lakes states as the “Vital Center” of the country. The challenge facing this region is whether or not we can shake our reputation as the Rust Belt, a place stuck with an obsolete economy. That we have plenty of assets is obvious. But if we’re to capitalize on these assets, our states need to stop competing with one another and start working cooperatively.

Like, for instance, working to make an inter-state rapid rail system a reality.

Indiana has more federally designated corridors for high-speed rail than any other state. No wonder: In 1916 we were home to the largest passenger rail network in the world. More Hoosier communities were linked by rail in those days than are connected by interstate highways. In order to connect Chicago and Cincinnati, we will need to redevelop a 319-mile stretch of track.

The only problem is that to get the funds to make a high-speed rail project happen, each participating state has to do an environmental impact study. Guess which state has yet to do this?

“It’s a money thing,” INDOT Communications Director Andrew Dietrick is quoted as saying. “It’s an expensive and time-consuming proposition to do an entire environmental impact study for a corridor of that size.”

That’s true. But this project didn’t materialize over night. A Midwest regional rail system has been on the drawing board for years — I know because I’ve been writing about it. Indiana Republicans and Democrats have been equally clueless about this issue, and the state’s economic health has suffered for it. As he embarks on his campaign for re-election, Mitch Daniels should promise to make a high-speed rail corridor across Indiana part of his legacy. If he does, we should name it for him.

But high-speed rail will not only be an economic boon for Indiana. It will renew our sense that we can actually build something new that enlarges our sense of place and improves our quality of life.

Until that time comes, do yourself a favor. See Sicko. Stop whistling.

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David Hoppe

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