Chesterton Tribune

Rail summit promotes private public partnerships for freight investment

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

An upswing in the nation’s freight and rail systems’ cargo loads has experts offering their ideas to help the U.S. become a global leader in transporting goods.

Speakers at Friday’s rail summit at Sand Creek Country Club, Paul Fisher of CenterPoint Properties and John Vickerman of Vickerman & Associates, said the entire state of Indiana is poised to reach this goal by implementing strategic plans and capture some more freight investment.

At the same time “creating jobs for their constituents,” Vickerman said. Low cost freight will leverage jobs, he said, and “have a ripple effect” on the economy. He said ports around the Great Lakes will be receiving more freight from cargo ships traveling out of the Panama Canal.

The industry has saved millions by participating in green initiatives to reduce the number of trucks on the road, Vickerman said.

Introducing the speakers, Chairman of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority (RDA) Leigh Morris said “rail is about jobs” and using the capabilities the state has will create “greater positive impact for everybody involved.” Morris read a message from U.S. Senator Richard Lugar saying he will push for measures to shore up federal dollars for making rail crossings safer.

Fisher advocated state and national governments to approve policies that would allow public-private partnerships to form. The relationships would be mutually beneficial, giving governments the capital they need to build the rail lines and, in turn, governments would give private companies the zoning and permits needed to do their work.

As of now, Fischer said, the U.S. and Indiana do not have the full resources needed to position its rail systems in the global market.

“Let’s face it, government is not going to have the money for the work that needs to be done,” said Fischer. “With a little bit of seed money, I think we will get a lot of projects accomplished.”

With Northwest Indiana’s location near Chicago, the hub of the Great Lakes region, Fisher stressed the importance of regional cooperation and regional infrastructure banks.

Vickerman said the U.S. and other countries in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have seen a turning point in the number of ports and cargo ships in countries in Southeast Asia. Of the world’s busiest ports, nine of them are in Asia and six of them are in mainland China.

European countries are also in their fifth generation of computer automation for their ports while the U.S. is not even in its first, Vickerman said.

In order for the U.S. to move ahead in the game, Vickerman said the region must speak out with a single voice and consolidate commitments.

Businesses in the U.S. are showing interest in increasing container shipments and making transport better for the environment. Wal-Mart is one business that is using energy efficient cargo ships designed to carry more freight and cut 20 million tons of greenhouse pollution by 2015.

As freight transportation continues to change, Vickerman said the customer does not “give a diddly” about how goods are shipped as cargo, as long as the end product gets to them consistently and on schedule.

“It could be by Star Trek transport – it doesn’t matter,” said Vickerman.

Taking questions from the audience, Fischer said the proposed Illiana Expressway connecting to Interstate 65 will help out the region’s rail transportation. He said that its “foolish” not to continue it east past I-65, into Lake and Porter Counties.

Ports of Indiana CEO Rich Cooper said the Ports are “off to a very good start” in 2012, with its flagship port in Burns Harbor shipping its highest cargo volume since 2006. The port saw a third consecutive year of growth with a more than 2 million tons of shipped cargo last year, a 10 percent increase over 2010.

Cooper said having multi-modal connections of rail and highway connectivity gives the Ports a sustainable competitive advantage.

“Water is not enough. Freight has a voice in the Ports of Indiana,” said Cooper.

During the event, U.S. Congressman Pete Visclosky reminded summit attendees that Lake and Porter Counties have received $71 million in federal stimulus money for high speed rail systems. He spoke of the “vast economic potential” Northwest Indiana has with rail investments, highlighting the development of Harbor Belt Railway in Lake County.

 

Posted 3/19/2012