Jul 03, 2023

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg visits Elkhart

ELKHART — Touting federal money to improve railroad infrastructure, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg was mid-sentence when a Norfolk Southern freight train came rolling down tracks about 50 yards behind him.

The conductor honked its horn, drowning out Buttigieg’s voice. He turned to Elkhart Mayor Rob Roberson, flanking him to his right, and said: “Did you plan that?”

Welcome home (sort of), Mayor Pete.

Buttigieg was in northern Indiana Wednesday afternoon as part of a tour of infrastructure projects happening across the state. He visited Elkhart to highlight a $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation that will pay to move a freight yard infamous for causing delays near the city’s busy downtown and to repair an unsafe railroad crossing near a local school. Two other dangerous crossings in Osceola, at Apple Road and Cedar Trail, will be fixed, too.

“As if to punctuate the point,” Buttigieg said, still recovering from the train horn, “that the Biden-Harris administration is determined to be there with communities across America for whom supply chains are personal and the question of goods movement and railroad safety is not theoretical.

“It is very much in our faces and in our backyards and in our lives.”

Thursday, Aug. 31:Chasten Buttigieg to speak in South Bend about new memoir and backlash to LGBTQ authors

Elkhart Mayor Rod Roberson walked Buttigieg around an intersection on the east side of town near the Elkhart Freshman Academy, a school for freshmen who get extra support during the transition to high school. A pothole-riddled railroad track crosses through there, and the roads — Waterfall Drive, Richmond Street and Blazer Boulevard — converge awkwardly.

Carolyn Hunt, who has lived nearby for nearly two decades, cycled down to see Buttigieg visit the place where her husband was in a bad bike accident years ago, she said.

“It’s the most dangerous intersection for bicycles here in Elkhart,” Hunt said, “and it’s really bad on the underneath side of cars, as you could hear when the car went by just a minute ago — you heard the big ‘clank-clank.’”

Tony Gianesi, chief operating officer of Elkhart Community Schools, said hundreds of students who walk to school are delayed at the railroad crossings by stopped trains — if they choose to wait. And if they don’t, they’re risking their safety by crawling across the stopped rail cars.

“Kids find their way across trains in an unsafe manner when they’re stopped on the tracks,” Roberson said. “It affects public safety when they have to get to an event very quickly. All of those things you don’t think about until you’re on the other end of it and the delay happens to cost you.”

The grant affects the Elkhart and Western Railroad, a historic line that today is owned by Patriot Rail. Standing outside the National New York Central Railroad Museum, Roberson said Elkhart is the site of one of Norfolk Southern’s largest rail yards.

Indy Star analysis:Indiana communities at risk for train disasters like the one that devastated Ohio town

But as the R.V. manufacturing hub shifts its downtown economy to use the Elkhart River and the St. Joseph River as amenities, not hydropower sources for businesses, the rail lines have become an impediment to growth, Roberson said. New apartments and restaurants facing the water have replaced mills that turned away from it to capture churning water.

“I love hearing about this ambition to turn and face the river,” Buttigieg said, “that was once regarded as something in between a conveyor belt and a sewer in a lot of cities in the country.”

Trains that stop in the freight yard on Jackson Boulevard often create tedious delays, Roberson said. So the loading area will be moved north of the St. Joseph River to a site near the intersection of California Road and Indiana 19.

Buttigieg also took time to celebrate major manufacturing projects across the region, including a more than $3 billion electric vehicle battery plant to be built near New Carlisle — the largest project in St. Joseph County’s history — and a $230 million expansion of the South Bend ethanol plant.

Asked about the news that the South Shore Line will likely stay at the South Bend International Airport instead of moving downtown — as Buttigieg preferred while mayor, a conviction South Bend Mayor James Mueller still holds — the transportation secretary focused on the benefits of a 90-minute ride from South Bend to Chicago. The federal government spent nearly $200 million on the $650 million double-tracking project, which aims to realize that speedy trip.

“However exactly it winds up being shaped,” he said, “I think that anything that enhances the connectivity into South Bend is going to be a big win for the community and the economy.”

And what’s it like to go from being mayor of a small city, in charge of about 1,000 employees, to a national secretary of transportation responsible for nearly 58,000 workers?

“It’s kind of like being shot out of a cannon,” Buttigieg said.

He went on: “Being mayor is very intense, of course — in some ways there’s no more intense and demanding job in government — but now I find myself responsible for everything from roads and bridges to commercial space travel, aviation, ports, the Merchant Marine Academy.

“Every day there’s a new challenge. But so often I approach those challenges with the perspective that I built as mayor, thinking about, ‘How would this choice, this decision that we face, how would that affect a community like South Bend?’”

Email South Bend Tribune city reporter Jordan Smith at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @jordantsmith09

Thursday, Aug. 31:Indy Star analysis: