The Indiana State Museum is a great place to visit if you want to learn about the fleeting nature of what we like to call “progress.” A stroll through the exhibits dealing with the state’s history from the late 1800s until the middle of the 20th century is a revelation. What you’ll see is that, for about 75 years, Indiana had it all.
The biggest industrial plant in the world was producing steel in Gary. Meanwhile, the state was a hotbed of automotive production. Indiana craftsmen were known for making top-quality furniture and Indiana technicians were known for their ability to engineer state-of-the-art electronics. Connecting all of this activity was one of the best public transit systems — the interurban railroads — in the country. If a place was worth getting to in Indiana, there was probably a train that could take you there.
That these stories are now locked up in a museum tells you something about how quickly times can change. In just a few generations, the state’s steel industry was reduced to a shadow of its former self, and the same can be said for our furniture making. As for cars and electronics, they’ve been all but purged from our collective memory.
Whether by accident or design, the State Museum’s look at Indiana’s past is sobering. It illustrates how quickly a state can go from being a productive place, loaded with skilled workers and an admirably diversified economic portfolio, to being practically off the radar when it comes to contemporary economic indicators that matter. Indiana used to be a state where people made things. Now we build warehouses where things that are made elsewhere are stored before being shipped to their final destination. I’m sure the State Museum will create an exhibit dedicated to “logistics” someday — and just as sure it’ll be a part of the tour most people will easily forget.
But there’s a way for Indiana to regain a measure of its former vitality. It’s called high-speed rail. I’ve written before about the attraction of being able to travel by train from Indianapolis to Chicago in two hours or less. But now that gasoline is climbing over the $4 per gallon mark, the appeal of being able to go from here to anywhere else without having to fill ’er up should be a no-brainer.
Unlike, say, the I-69 highway project — a boondoggle that is not only environmentally destructive but dedicated to an increasingly obsolescent form of transport — resurrecting Indiana’s rail system doesn’t just present an opportunity to employ Hoosiers, it can also help create a new business model for our entire region.
This idea became part of the current presidential campaign when Barack Obama brought it up during a visit to Beech Grove. Referring to how high fuel prices have affected driving and air travel, Obama said, “We should be expanding rail service. One of the things I have been talking about for a while is high speed rail connecting all of these Midwest cities — Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis.”
Obama’s willingness to imagine a new, interconnected regional marketplace stands in contrast to his opponent, John McCain. McCain has a history of voting against funding for Amtrak. What’s more, the section of his Web site devoted to transportation focuses primarily on battery-powered cars and gas mileage standards.
But if McCain seems clueless when it comes to rail, Indiana’s gubernatorial candidates are worse. In Mitch Daniels’ case, this comes as no surprise. His administration’s fixation on highway development looks like forward thinking ... circa 1958. While no one can argue with the state’s pressing need to repair its crumbling streets and highways, Daniels’ failure to even acknowledge the importance of other forms of transport puts Indiana at a major disadvantage.
Unfortunately, Daniels’ Democratic opponent, Jill Long Thompson, is no better. Rather than embrace Obama’s vision for a regional rail network, Thompson’s campaign Web site doesn’t even address transportation policy. Even worse, Long Thompson has endorsed the I-69 project.
Indiana went from boom to backwater in less than a hundred years because things changed in the world and we failed to adapt. Now, as the rising cost of a gallon of gas ripples through everything we do, we are called to change again. This is an opportunity. The people who would lead us should be challenged to seize it.