South Shore proponents lay tracks for expansion

2014-01-18T23:00:00Z 2014-08-20T17:56:10Z South Shore proponents lay tracks for expansionBy Keith Benman, (219) 933-3326

In a renewed push to extend the South Shore commuter rail line, proponents are touting its unparalleled economic development potential and saying no new taxes will be needed to build it.

Their enthusiasm is boosted in part by a new study commissioned by the South Shore's operator that finds an extension to Dyer would result in 5,600 new daily riders hauling about $147 million per year in paychecks back to Northwest Indiana from Chicago.

That economic benefit does not even count the jobs that would be created by those South Shore commuters spending their checks in the region. Those jobs could total more than 5,000 if the rail line someday reached its ultimate goal of Lowell and Valparaiso.

That means extending the South Shore to Dyer, and then to Lowell and Valparaiso, could easily outperform the economic impact of any single project since the establishment of Bethlehem Steel here in the 1960s.

"Northwest Indiana has an opportunity to lay the foundation for transformational infrastructure investment by extending the South Shore line," said U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville. "This is a generational opportunity to create jobs. The time is now."

The 8-mile extension to Dyer would include new stations to be built in Hammond and in the Munster/Dyer area. Five trains per day would go into Chicago and five would come back. The first trains could be running by 2023.

Regional officials also are touting the benefits for the state as a whole, pointing out South Shore riders generate $14 million annually in income and sales tax collections for the state, according to the study performed by Policy Analytics, of Indianapolis. At the start of the construction phase, the Dyer extension would add $5 million to that figure.

With trains up and running on the extension to Dyer, that figure could swell to $45.9 million by 2033.

The renewed push is different from previous ones in the last decade, because it envisions building the West Lake Corridor extension in stages, with Dyer the first. In addition, no new taxes are being proposed to pay for the Dyer extension.

Paying the fare for progress

For the Dyer extension, the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program would pay up to 50 percent of the $571 million price tag, according to a study prepared by URS Corp. for South Shore operator Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District.

Local officials acknowledge raising the rest, plus more for operations, will be no easy task. But they think they finally have a realistic plan that could pass political muster. But it will take some doing.

Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay, D-Hammond, is carrying the ball on the county level for the South Shore extension. He says he would like the county to use $2 million to $3 million per year from the County Economic Development Income Tax to help pay for the South Shore project staring in 2015.

Municipalities would be solicited for contributions, as they receive $14.8 million in distributions from the economic development tax.

"We think with the job creation this will generate, it will pay for itself," said Repay, who also is a member of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District's board of directors.

Repay, Visclosky and others say they already have been talking with local officials across the county about kicking in for the project, and they are ready to do their part.

They are pitching the regional impact of not just the extension to Dyer, but also of other projects planned for the next decade such as the $180 million Michigan City realignment, $35 million in Gary station improvements and a $15 million South Bend realignment for more direct access to the airport.

In addition, proponents of the expansion believe that armed with the new Policy Analytics study they can demonstrate the expansion will add to state sales and income tax coffers.

"We are not even talking about raising taxes," said Bill Hanna, executive director of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. "We are talking about a business proposition that grows the state of Indiana."

Hanna and other officials say the state could help promote that growth by sharing just a slice of any increase in sales or income tax tied to the expansion. A sales tax increment financing district is one way to do that, but there could be others Hanna said.

"As you grow you capture that growth, and it won't adversely impact people who are living there," Hanna said.

The RDA remains committed to kicking in some of its own funds for the extension. In 2007, the RDA contributed $17.5 million toward the purchase of 14 new double-decker train cars for the South Shore. Then-Gov. Mitch Daniels also became involved and $3 million was contributed by the state.

Congressman drives the train

Visclosky has been promoting the South Shore extension every chance he gets. At a meeting of a General Assembly committee on transportation and infrastructure in September, he laid out his vision for the extension and why it is needed now.

He pointed out Lake County's population and household income has shrunk over the years, while the rest of the nation has progressed. Comparisons he trotted out included the 9.5 percent decline in the county's population between 1970 and 2010, as compared to a national growth rate of 51.7 percent. Average household income in Northwest Indian has declined 15 percent during that same time.

"So you have to ask yourself, what has to change here?" Visclosky said. "You want to keep steel and basic manufacturing, but there has to be something more."

Mostly the congressman has been emphasizing the undeniable size and power of the Chicago region's $500 billion-plus economy. Jobs at the center of that region in Cook County pay a premium of 40 percent as compared to similar jobs in Northwest Indiana. Those are the jobs South Shore commuters cash in on.

The Dyer extension was chosen as the first South Shore extension project because it would attract enough ridership to qualify for federal funding. It also keeps the project cost manageable.

The Metra tracks that carry the South Shore into Chicago could handle the new trains added for the Dyer branch. However, a major project would be needed to add track capacity at Millennium Station. The cost of that is included in the $571 million price tag attached to the Dyer extension, according to NICTD planning and marketing director John Parsons.

Valparaiso wants train, but buses first

Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas, a long-time champion of region transportation projects, says he is just fine with the staged approach.

Valparaiso already is doing its part for the longer-term plan by laying a foundation for Chicago commutes with its ChicaGo Dash express bus service to Chicago, Costas said.

"The best model for us right now is clearly the buses," Costas said. "But we are building ridership, so when it makes sense to extend trains to Valparaiso we'll have developed the ridership."

South Shore extension could finally get green signal

It is thought the new approach will be successful in overcoming many of the road blocks of the past.

Still fresh in everyone's mind are the ill-fated November 2009 voter referendums to create a Regional Transportation District that could have aided in extending the South Shore. The plan was soundly defeated in votes in Porter and St. Joseph counties. In Lake and LaPorte, county officials simply called off the votes.

No referendum will be needed this time, in part because of the no new tax pledge.

"It is exciting because this time it seems like we really are at a tipping point," Hanna said.

Visclosky said it was county officials making the tough decision last year to pass a local income tax who deserve credit for getting the ball rolling on the Dyer expansion.

"This is just the first phase of the expansion of the South Shore," he said. "And I have every reason to believe it will someday go to Valparaiso and it will go to Lowell. But you have to start somewhere."

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