Eye on the Pie and Opinion

MARCUS: Higher aspirations built on high-speed rail

December 4, 2010

“Why does Indiana’s economy perform poorly?” The answers, which many Hoosiers find offensive, boil down to two words: “low aspirations.” We reject a better life if it will cost more.

Today, let’s consider a higher level of aspirations for Indiana.

On our state’s 100th birthday in 1916, Indiana was a distinguished leader in the transportation industry. We designed and made the autos and trains America depended on to become the greatest industrial power in the world. Those means of transport also opened opportunities for everyone to enjoy a larger set of social interactions. Better access to the material and cultural riches of the world made small towns more pleasant places to live.

Now, as we approach our 200th birthday in 2016, Indiana should reach toward higher goals. Citizens and their leaders should adopt a new level of aspiration, one that stirs the imagination and demonstrates our competitive competence. Hoosiers should discard the cloak of indifference that too many wear with pride.

Once more let us be the center for the American transportation industry. Let Indiana show the nation what a comprehensive, modern transport system serving urban and rural areas looks like. It’s not too expensive to do in Indiana, the smallest state west of the Alleghenies. We have no wide rivers to bridge, no mountains to bore through. Indiana has 15 cities of 50,000 or more people, plus 550 places of smaller numbers, an ideal setting to test various combinations of transportation options.

On Indiana’s 200th birthday, let us have initiated 200 integrated demonstration projects of the existing 21st-century transformative transportation technologies that already are used elsewhere. Of course, America, and particularly Indiana, is not Europe or Asia. We have different settlement patterns, traditions and geography. What works in other lands with other cultures will manifest itself differently on this continent.

Two hundred demonstration projects across the state will provide guidelines for transportation policies currently lacking in Indiana and the nation. These projects will answer questions that go beyond the traditional economic, engineering and environmental studies.

For example, build a high-speed train line diagonally across the state from the Gary airport to Lawrenceburg on the Ohio River (Chicago to Cincinnati, if those cities would cooperate). Planning for this system would address a variety of questions, including: What complementary transit resources are needed to optimize efficient transportation along and beyond this corridor for the citizens and businesses of northwestern Indiana, Rensselaer, Lafayette, Lebanon, Indianapolis, Shelbyville, Greensburg and Batesville? In what ways would existing travel and supply patterns be changed?

Does the public understand the incredible increase in mobility this system provides? What methods of furnishing information will be most effective in helping people use the system? These and other questions also apply to new technologies in civilian aviation. Advocates of new jet aircraft see great opportunities using small, existing airports for passenger and freight services. Air-taxi systems are expected to respond to these opportunities.

Whether it is road, rail or air systems, innovative projects require major federal, state, local and private funding to identify workable systems. Money will be difficult to secure because transportation funds traditionally are scattered about for political purposes rather than integrated for research purposes.

High-speed rail between centers of significant population densities and small jet aircraft for point-to-point service will revolutionize our lives. They will provide thousands of jobs and revitalize local and regional bus and light-rail services. Initiating 200 projects in Indiana will put us at the forefront of the newest technologies. High-speed rail in particular will increase demand for skilled labor and restore pride to a state that has forgotten its capabilities and abandoned hope for a distinctive future.•

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Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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