INDIANAPOLIS | Northwest Indiana's legislative delegation stands united in supporting expanding the South Shore Line, but members are skeptical the state will play a significant role in extending the commuter train to Dyer -- despite the best efforts of some region lawmakers.
The Times contacted 18 of the 20 state representatives and senators serving Lake, Porter, LaPorte, Newton and Jasper counties. Each strongly endorsed the effort, championed by U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, to improve the area's rail transit connections.
"It's a great economic development tool for us to be able to leverage our position near Chicago, and it will bring a lot of jobs and money and opportunity," said state Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville. "To have that kind of transit infrastructure, I think it will also help realistically keep some younger people here."
State Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, said a South Shore Line expansion could persuade Illinois residents to move to Indiana, leading to more homes sold, more shoppers in area stores and more state and local government revenue from sales, income and property taxes.
"I'm absolutely convinced what that could do, not just for Northwest Indiana and the access to the jobs that are there; in turn it would be a boost for the whole state because that rail line goes both ways," Rogers said.
However, when it comes to the state directly contributing money for the local match required to obtain federal support for a South Shore expansion, the region's lawmakers diverge into several camps.
Some, like state Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary; state Rep. Earl Harris, D-East Chicago; and state Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, said the region long has gotten less back from the state than it has contributed in tax revenue, so funding South Shore expansion could begin to make up that deficit while also benefiting the state.
Others, like state Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond; House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City; state Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster; and state Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point, know the state definitely can afford to help, but don't believe the Republican-controlled Legislature will choose to.
"Nobody in Indianapolis gives a (expletive) about us at all," Lawson said. "If they're not going to fix Cline Avenue, they're not going to spend millions of dollars on a railroad."
State Rep. Tom Dermody, R-LaPorte; state Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond; state Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary; and state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, all simply said "yes" when asked if the state should support South Shore expansion.
The only Northwest Indiana lawmaker to rule out state support was state Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek.
He said while he agrees the South Shore has value and expanding the South Shore would be good for the region, it should be funded with locally raised money -- not state dollars.
Four other area Republican lawmakers -- state Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso; state Rep. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell; Slager; and state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso -- said their backing of state support to expand the South Shore would depend on what's included in a specific plan.
"We need to look at all sources of funding," Charbonneau said. "If the state plays a role in it ... there would be a huge return on that investment to the taxpayers of the state through additional tax revenue."
There is almost zero chance the state simply will pony up money this year for South Shore expansion.
State Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, chairman of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said he's not reopening the two-year state budget enacted in 2013 -- no matter what.
In fact, Brown keeps a gift-wrapped box labeled "The Budget" at his House desk with a tag on it that reads, "Don't open until 2015."
That leaves two options, since there is no specific South Shore legislation pending in the General Assembly.
Senate Bill 176, awaiting action in the House, authorizes several central Indiana counties to hold a referendum on whether to impose new personal and corporate income taxes to fund expanded bus transit in and around Indianapolis.
That proposal could be changed to also give Northwest Indiana counties the option to raise transit taxes through a referendum, though VanDenburgh is not enthusiastic about that.
"I'm having a really hard time wanting to add an additional tax on my constituents who are just now getting used to the 1.5 percent countywide income tax," she said.
The other possibility is taking the $4 million saved by closing a Lake County tax credit loophole in Hershman's Senate Bill 367 and directing that money to South Shore expansion. The proposal, now in the House, sends the money to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.
Rogers objects to the RDA getting money since it comes from casino tax revenue that otherwise would go to Hammond, East Chicago, Gary and Lake County. She said those localities should get to decide how it's spent.
At the same time, Charbonneau and Tallian said the RDA is facing the possibility of its state funding dropping from $10 million a year to zero after 2015, so the $4 million is a good start toward ensuring the RDA can continue supporting region development projects, including South Shore expansion.
Charlie Brown, the leader of the Northwest Indiana delegation, said he hopes to hammer out a compromise concerning those funds when the region's lawmakers meet Tuesday at the Statehouse.