LOGANSPORT – When former Gov. Evan Bayh took office in 1989, one of the first things he did was combine agencies under the umbrella of a new title, the Indiana Department of Transportation.

The move made sense from a state coordination standpoint. For a state that bills itself as the Crossroads of America, it made perfect sense. Intermodal facilities need to be located at the nexus of highways and railroads. Ports on the Ohio and Lake Michigan have to have access. A growing reliance on small airports to transport executives was burgeoning.

Now more than 30 years later, it’s hard to believe there was a time before INDOT. But if we turned back the clock and magically asked Hoosiers in 1989 if they thought there would be fewer passenger trains today and no high-speed rail at this point in history, they’d probably scoff at the notion. But that is what has happened.

Perhaps one of the most important news stories in years that didn’t lead nightly news casts in Indiana happened this month. It was announced that the federal government is undertaking a 40-year plan to improve rail travel across the United States. One of the key areas that will benefit is the Midwest, and Indiana in particular. 

Columbus, Ohio, which is the largest city without Amtrak access, would benefit, as would Fort Wayne. Indiana already has a solid infrastructure in place along its northern border with the South Shore Line from South Bend to Chicago. This plan would augment that and potentially could open up new lines south to Indianapolis, Lafayette and Louisville.

It also would make sense to extend service from Fort Wayne to Lafayette, replicating the former Wabash Cannonball route through northern Indiana and connecting cities along the Hoosier Heartland Corridor.

With the 2020 Census figures as a guide, it stands to reason that state and federal officials – sometimes prompted by city and county officials – can start a fresh dialogue about this proposal and its impact on Indiana. Census figures continue to reflect that metro Indiana is growing, but most of Indiana is losing population. There is a net positive, but with greater access to rural areas, metro employers can only enjoy the same benefits that employers in New York, Boston, Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia have enjoyed for decades.

There are many among us who remember when the Colts were spirited out of Owings Mills, Md., in the dark of night thanks to Mayflower moving vans. While we were at it, Indiana officials probably should have taken some rail access from the Eastern Seaboard too.

This country has long catered to highway and airport development while putting rail on the back burner to fend for itself. Cities and counties can establish their own rail authorities, but those are often islands without bridges to the main networks of rail transportation. 

On-time delivery is crucial to many industries, and at a time when global warming presents an horrific threat to everyone, rail transportation is cleaner and more efficient than ever. Indiana makes it a point to cater to advanced manufacturing and industrial development, but it lags the nation in having a viable plan to complement our transportation network of highways, airports and seaports with greater potential utilizing railroads.

An aide to the late House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill called Social Security the third rail of American politics because of the stability it represented. But the rail plan idea offered in the past week represents the fourth rail of American Politics that can do more for Indiana than many other states. 

Kitchell is the former Democratic mayor of Logansport.