David Hoppe

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:: Ending Amtrak’s Hoosier State

by David Hoppe

I wish I felt worse about this.

But the apparent decision by Indiana’s Department of Transportation (INDOT) to cut the cord on Amtrak’s Hoosier State line, the passenger train that runs four times a week between Indianapolis and Chicago, over a funding spat with the mind-numbingly named Federal Railroad Administration, feels like a mercy killing.

Advocates for rail transit — myself included — have been arguing for a meaningful connection between Chicago and Indy for years. It would be a boon for our commerce, our culture, and it would be a blast.

But the operative word is meaningful, and Amtrak has failed to meet that standard. I know that Amtrak does a good job in some parts of the country, but in the Midwest, nightmare stories of trains being hours late abound. What’s more, travel times are no bargain, the same goes for ticket prices.

Want to get from Indy to Chicago? Take the Megabus. Or drive yourself.

This, of course, is not a real solution. That was floated back in 2008, when President-Elect Barack Obama talked about creating a Midwest high-speed rail network connecting cities throughout the region. Those were the days. The problem with this scheme was that it required investment by the participating states; an investment that most, and most notably Indiana, were unwilling to make.

It is not as if we haven’t been finding money to spend on transportation. At the same time that INDOT was grousing about new levels of funding it was being ordered to cough up for the Hoosier State, work was about to begin on a $36 million project adding lanes to a 13-mile stretch of I-65 on Indy’s Southside. Additional expansions to I-65 and I-69, totaling $400 million, are in the works.

Are these projects wasteful or superfluous? Well, no, not so long as you insist on making individually driven cars and trucks your society’s primary mode of transportation.

It’s when you ask whether this approach — paving over landscape so that more and more fossil fuel-spewing vehicles, mostly carrying one or two passengers at a time — is truly sustainable that things get crazy.

But then we’ve fallen so far behind on the upkeep of our roads and bridges, it’s no wonder the idea of investing in something new, which is to say truly up-to-date, makes most peoples’ hair hurt.

We’re stuck. But is our stuck-ness regarding transportation inevitable, or more like a failure of imagination?

It is hard not to think this situation is anything but an unintended consequence of our 30-year rage for ever smaller government. Deciding that government, as Ronald Reagan famously said, is the problem has not, it turns out, shrunk bureaucracy so much as made it ineffectual.

Government, after all, once engineered the Interstate Highway system. Can you imagine politicians summoning the will to deliver a project on that scale today? First they’d have to call it “affordable.”