INDIANAPOLIS | Northwest Indiana lawmakers will have to be creative and quick during the 10-week legislative session that begins Monday if the state is to play a role in extending the South Shore Line into south Lake County.
Early indications are that no measure will be filed funding even a portion of the proposed South Shore extension -- estimated to cost $465 million to Dyer or $615 million to St. John -- largely because 2014 is not a budget year.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly last year set state spending through June 30, 2015, and rarely acts on proposals that spend money, especially hundreds of millions of dollars, in nonbudget years.
"Opening up the budget is just not in the cards," said state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, chairman of the House Roads and Transportation Committee.
That has prompted region lawmakers to look at how local governments might raise the money needed to match some $200 million in federal funds that U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, has promised to deliver for a South Shore extension.
State Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, said she is hoping the Legislature will provide an appropriate tool the region can use to pay for expanded mass transit; she just doesn't know what that might be.
"It's not soup yet," she said, adopting a favorite line of former state Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville. "But we just can't afford to wait any longer."
Candelaria Reardon said the threat of a new south suburban Metra line on the Illinois side of the border ought to inspire Indiana lawmakers, even those living far from the region, to want to protect the state revenue coming from the higher salaries earned by Hoosiers taking the train to work in Chicago.
"We've got to be able to show that we've got skin in the game and that we're willing to support the effort, but let's not pretend that the state's not going to benefit from it when it finally comes to fruition," she said.
Soliday, who meets frequently with local leaders focused on transit-oriented development, said likely the only way to get state action is to sell the South Shore expansion as an investment that comes with a strong local commitment, including local funding.
"This is not a pro-mass transit Legislature ... You don't want to go in there and look like you're looking for a handout," Soliday said. "I don't see the state moving until there's a local commitment."
He said there's been progress toward that goal, but conflicting cost estimates from the South Shore's governing body and the time it takes to get data showing the benefits of mass transit expansion mean "getting it done by March 14 (the Legislature's mandatory adjournment date) probably is a stretch."
"We're trying to take a very boring, methodical approach, as opposed to an emotive one," Soliday said. "We are better to be methodical than to rush into something and get run out of the room."
On the plus side, if a plan emerges for South Shore expansion there likely will be a vehicle to attach it to as an amendment, making passage more likely.
Central Indiana lawmakers are expected to push hard this year, following several legislative defeats, for a business-backed mass transit referendum that would allow Indianapolis-area counties to increase their local income tax rate to fund new bus, and, possibly, rail lines.