Key Detroit-Chicago rail project back in fast lane

From the Northwest Indiana Times:

Railroad and state officials have reached an agreement on a key project that was holding up progress on a Chicago-to-Detroit high-speed Amtrak rail route.

Norfolk Southern and state officials are inking an agreement this week that will secure $71.4 million in federal stimulus funds to pay for eight separate rail projects in Indiana, which should significantly reduce delays on Amtrak trains headed to Michigan, said John Swanson, executive director at the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission.

“This will be a major project in Indiana to facilitate high-speed rail through Northwest Indiana,” Swanson said.

The deal on the improvements, called the Indiana Gateway, also was greeted warmly by U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind.

“The Indiana Gateway project will create jobs in the short-term, improve the transport of passengers and cargo in the midterm, and build a foundation for a thriving rail infrastructure and a sound regional economy in the long-term,” Visclosky said.

The Indiana Gateway is one of the last major projects approved for the Chicago-to-Detroit high-speed rail route, which has won almost $400 million in stimulus funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

It is estimated the Indiana Gateway project will create approximately 700 construction jobs and reduce delays in Indiana on the Chicago-to-Detroit route by as much as 64 percent, according to the original grant application submitted by the Indiana Department of Transportation.

The project was first announced by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in January 2010 but has been held up by disagreements between railroads and the government on how best to proceed.

The Indiana Gateway project will include the construction of a siding at Porter Junction, in the Town of Porter, identified by INDOT as one of the most congestion-prone rail junctions in the U.S. Every day 14 Amtrak trains and 87 freight trains merge there in order to proceed into Chicago or eastward to Michigan, Ohio and other points east.

In addition there will be high-speed crossovers, new signals and new tracks added at various locations in Northwest Indiana. There will be about six months of design work followed by 20 months of construction, according to INDOT’s application.

It is estimated the Indiana Gateway project, along with other major improvements in Illinois and Michigan, will shave 30 minutes off a Chicago-to-Detroit Amtrak ride. Trains will operate at speeds of 110 mph along much of the Michigan portion of the route.

State departments of transportation are conducting hearings in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan this week to develop an environmental impact statement for the 300-mile Chicago to Detroit route. The Indiana hearing will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday at City Hall, 100 E. Michigan Blvd., Michigan City.