HOBART | U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky on Monday night issued a powerful call for local communities to ante up for the South Shore Line extension in the next three weeks so Northwest Indiana can take its rightful place in the global economy.
“What people in this room do in the next 21 days will change how three-quarters of a million people live their lives in Northwest Indiana,” Visclosky told about 300 people at the Avalon Manor.
The congressman has been tirelessly pitching the South Shore extension to Dyer, and someday later to Lowell and Valparaiso, as the best hope of reviving the region's economy by connecting more people with good-paying jobs in Chicago.
Two hours of networking, rallying the troops and information distribution took place under the banner of “Laying Tracks for the Future” in an Avalon ballroom where Visclosky spoke. It was presented by a coalition of groups for young professionals from Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.
Visclosky's call came just four days after the executive board of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission voted 8-0 to urge the General Assembly to leave $4 million in casino funds with local communities and not direct it to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority for the South Shore Line expansion.
Visclosky told his listeners now is not the time to lose heart and urged them to urge local officials to come up with the $8 million more that will be needed.
He said Lake County and four communities already have committed part of their proceeds from the new economic development tax to the effort, but that every community in Lake County must take part to round up the full $8 million needed.
The South Shore extension would run eight miles from Hammond to Dyer. It would cost an estimated $571 million to build.
The RDA already has pledged $8 million per year for the life of the project. It also plans to use the $4 million in casino money if the General Assembly ignores NIRPC's plea and hands the money to the RDA for the South Shore extension.
“If we make that economic investment of using that one-quarter percent economic development tax, we will grow our economy exponentially,” Visclosky said.
Attendees at the event also heard from young professionals giving their own testimony about what the South Shore Line extension could mean for Northwest Indiana.
Ben Bochnowski, 33, who works at Peoples Bank, in Munster, said the South Shore extension is the best way to connect Northwest Indiana to the global economic force that is Chicago.
“Expanding the South Shore is how we claim our place in this global economy,” Bochnowski said. “It's how we stake our claim to that global economy.”
Javier Diaz, 37, a Miller resident, said the South Shore commuter railroad was critical to his family's decision to relocate to Northwest Indiana. He uses it to commute daily to his job at a major financial firm in Chicago.
However, the real star of the night, according to Visclosky, was not a young professional. Instead, he had the audience recognize Janet Moran, who as a Hammond councilwoman came to him in 1987 with the idea of extending the South Shore using the abandoned Monan Corridor.
“This was Janet Moran's idea in 1987 and now we find ourselves in this room in March 2014,” Visclosky said.
Enthusiasm like Monday night's has been boosted by a study commissioned by the South Shore's operator that shows a new eight-mile extension to Dyer would serve about 5,600 riders per day. And improvements planned for the existing South Shore line could increase ridership there by about 4,600, according to the study prepared by Policy Analytics of Indianapolis.
All told, new riders drawn by the extension and mainline improvements would haul about $147 million in paychecks back to Northwest Indiana from well-paying jobs in Chicago.
That economic benefit does not even count the jobs that would be created by those South Shore commuters spending their pay 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.
Regional officials also are touting the benefits for the state as a whole, pointing out South Shore riders now generate $14 million annually in income and sales tax collections for the state, according to the Policy Analytics study. With trains up and running on the extension to Dyer, that figure could swell to $45.9 million by 2033.