Metra success hard to ignore

2014-01-19T00:00:00Z 2014-02-06T11:57:21Z Metra success hard to ignoreBy Keith Benman, (219) 933-3326

On one side of the border is a sprawling 488-mile commuter rail system with 11 separate tentacles connecting Chicago's Loop with some of the Midwest's most affluent communities.

On the other side of the border is the one-line commuter railroad that relies for most of its ridership on stations in the gritty heart of Rust Belt cities.

Promoters of a South Shore extension are taking hard look at the Metra system in Illinois, saying it is time for the South Shore to allow more people here to tap into Chicago's powerful jobs engine.

And they say that starts with a West Lake Corridor expansion running 8 miles from Hammond to Dyer.

"To have world class access to Chicago has to be paramount," said Bill Hanna, executive director at the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. "This will be a game changer. The value is there, so we have to figure out how we can make it happen."

A recent study by Policy Analytics, of Indianapolis, shows jobs in Cook County on average pay wage rates 40 percent higher than similar jobs in Indiana.

An earlier report by the same firm found: "The fundamental conclusion of this study is that the existence of this well-paying, highly specialized, and well-diversified economic engine just 25 miles to the northwest argues more strongly for improving transportation access along the West Lake Corridor than anything else."

The Metra system carries about 300,000 passengers every weekday as compared to the South Shore's 12,100. Although the South Shore runs 90 route miles from Chicago to South Bend, extension boosters say only the 35 miles of track from Michigan City to the state line acts as a true commuter line for Northwest Indiana residents.

Metra's 11 lines give basically every community in a wide swath of northeast Illinois access to high-paying Chicago jobs. And hundreds of Indiana residents currently drive to Metra stations in Homewood, Flossmoor and other communities to make their daily commute.

Communities southeast of Chicago already have formed a Southeast Commuter Rail Transit District to entice Metra to lay a 12th line of tracks to more communities, including Dolton, South Holland and Crete. Those communities are working to establish local financial support to obtain federal funding for the plan.

The Metra system also results in a much higher proportion of Chicago collar county residents being able to access high-paying Chicago jobs as compared to their peers in Indiana, according to the Policy Analytics study.

That study finds in the five Chicago collar counties between 29 percent and 40 percent of residents commute into Cook County for jobs. Despite being just as close, or in some cases closer, only 20 percent of Lake County residents and 6 percent of Porter County residents commute into Cook County for jobs.

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, said Northwest Indiana has to examine closely the benefits Metra and other commuter rail systems across the nation provide as it looks to improve its own.

"Communities here have to decide what they want to do," Visclosky said. "They have to cast a wide net and take a look at as many other systems as possible so they can decide what's right for their own community."

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