PORTAGE — The task force targeting the extended blockage of railroad crossings in the Region will focus on lobbying for Congressional action after a review of potential federal remedies pointed in that direction.

David Hollenbeck, attorney for the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, under whose auspices the Rail Crossing Task Force was formed last year, said at a task force meeting Monday that regulatory agencies likely aren't the answer. The Department of Transportation's Surface Transportation Board, for example, reviewed complaints from communities in the Chicago area only to determine, after two years, it could do nothing.

"They acknowledged there to be a problem, but had no solution to that problem," Hollenbeck said. "There's been a lot of inaction at the federal regulatory level."

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. had suggested creation of the task force last year when frustration with crossing blockages increased after an Indiana Supreme Court decision struck down local law enforcement's ability to fine railroads for extended delays, some far beyond the former 10-minute limit.

"It seems to me our last opportunity at this point is lobbying (Congress)," McDermott said.

Mark Lopez, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, said legislation addressing the issue is being developed by a House Transportation subcommittee whose members include U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, D-Indianapolis. Lopez said the safety, economic and "general quality-of-place" issues rail blockages create have raised concern at other places around the country.

"When you encounter this kind of disruption, it's just a drag on all the great things these communities are trying to do," Lopez said.

NIRPC staff and a local transportation consultant have begun collecting data that would contribute to any lobbying effort. NIRPC's most recent data show 886 at-grade rail crossings in the three counties of Northwest Indiana, with nearly half of schools, fire stations and hospitals within a half-mile of a crossing. As many as 90 trains per day passed through the busiest crossings, according to the 2013 NIRPC study.

William Moore, a former employee of two freight railroads who formed the consultancy EME Rail Solutions, collected anecdotal evidence after the task force's first meeting last December. He observed a total of 39 train crossings in Hammond, East Chicago, Griffith, Hobart and Schererville. 13 of those exceeded 10 minutes; one, in East Chicago, lasted 104 minutes.

"It's just a small snapshot, but it starts to paint a picture in the Region about what's going on at these crossings," Moore said.

McDermott said the task force's next public meeting will be at 1:30 p.m. May 29 at NIRPC, 6100 Southport Road, Portage. Participants will discuss any proposed federal legislation and review further plans to collect data on crossing blockages.

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