This plan could change usDavid Hoppe

Last Christmas, the news was full of stories about people stuck in airports. Between bad weather and computer glitches, thousands and thousands of travelers trying to get home for the holidays found themselves stranded and without any option but to wait. The Midwest Regional Rail System plan is the result of almost 10 years' works. Its vision is to transform how we think about and use transportation in this part of the country.

The travelers' hassles underscored the extent to which we've become dependent on air travel and automobiles for getting around. But last week representatives from the departments of transportation in nine Midwestern states, including Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan, unveiled a business plan for what they called "a transportation network for the 21st century," or the Midwest Regional Rail System.

The MWRRS plan is the result of almost 10 years' work. Its vision is to transform how we think about and use transportation in this part of the country. Imagine, for a second, that you have a business meeting with a bunch of venture capitalists in Chicago. But it's February. A winter storm with freezing rain and snow is bearing down on Indianapolis. Flights are being delayed or canceled throughout the region and the state police is warning people to stay off the roads. You're out of luck, right?

No, because you're taking one of six 110 mph trains to the Windy City that will get you there in less time than it takes you to drive there on a sunny day. What's more, you'll be able to read and review the notes for your pitch while you travel so you're better prepared for your meeting. The result? You wow those investors with your idea and return home with a deal that will enable you to start a small business bringing new money and jobs to Central Indiana.

In fact, the MWRRS plan builds upon 3,000 miles of existing rail rights-of-way to connect rural, small urban and major metropolitan areas throughout the Midwest, from Cleveland to Omaha and from Minneapolis to Cincinnati. The plan envisions a hub-and-spoke system with Chicago acting as the central hub. It will rely upon modern trains operating at speeds up to 110 mph to improve reliability and on-time performance and provide special feeder bus service to provide outlying communities with access to railheads.

By 2025, the MWRRS expects to be carrying 13.6 million passengers every year. Thanks to the feeder bus service component, it is estimated that 90 percent of the Midwest population will be within a one-hour ride of an MWRRS station. Fares have been pegged to be competitive with air travel and are believed to have the potential to generate revenues in excess of operating costs after the system's ramp-up period. A one-way ticket from Indianapolis to Cincinnati, for example, is projected to cost $24.

The MWRRS plan promises to cut travel congestion in major travel corridors, be time-competitive on short to medium-length trips and provide smaller communities that are (or will be) underserved by airlines with a viable transportation option. The plan points out that the regional rail system's downtown-to-downtown connections will provide a means to expand workforce recruitment.

Capital costs for the system, including infrastructure and train equipment, are estimated to be $7.7 billion (in 2002 dollars). Funding is expected to come from a combination of federal, state and private sector funds. The MWRRS plan is based on the establishment of an 80/20 federal/state funding program like those that are now used for highway and airport funding.

This plan should come as good news to our new governor, Mitch Daniels. Daniels' campaign was based on revitalizing Indiana's economy and creating new jobs for Hoosiers. Building a regional rail system will provide scores of construction jobs, but even better is the plan's call for the Midwestern manufacture of 63 trainsets at a cost of over $1 billion, which could help reinvigorate the state's hard hit manufacturing base.

Daniels has said that he wants to do things that will encourage small business start-ups and growth. If this is true, he might want to look at the possible connection between the success of small businesses in the European Union and high-speed rail. Europe, which is known for its extensive rail system, has also been enjoying a small business boom. The EU has more small businesses than does the United States. In 2002, 65 percent of European jobs were in small and medium-sized businesses compared with 46 percent in the U.S.

How we travel can change our sense of where we live and who we are. Airline travel has made the world seem smaller; automobiles have empowered individuals with incredible mobility. A high-speed rail system linking Indianapolis with Chicago - and a host of other cities around the Midwest - will create opportunities for collaborations and alliances that could reinvent this region, creating a Midwestern economic identity to rival the Northeast corridor or West Coast.

The Indiana Department of Transportation recently hired a consultant to help prepare the environmental studies necessary to make Indiana ready to participate in this nine-state undertaking. In the meantime, Thomas O. Sharp, Daniels' new appointee in charge of INDOT, is just becoming acquainted with his staff. Once he has settled in, he and the governor need to make Midwest Regional Rail a top priority, championing it among policy and budgetmakers in Washington, D.C. For more information - or to urge our leaders on in this effort - go to or call 317-232-1491.


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