HAMMOND | U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, on Monday urged Hammond City Council members to get on board with the South Shore commuter train expansion.
Visclosky asked Hammond to join Lake County, Highland, Hobart, Lake Station, Munster and Whiting, who have pledged a combined annual total of $2.8 million to the commuter rail expansion. He said Schneider, south of Lowell, was planning to commit funds to the effort.
The pitch received a mixed response, with the council not taking any action on his request.
Visclosky returned to the same talking points he has used throughout the winter. With an aging population and lower income potential, Hammond and other communities in Northwest Indiana need to find ways to attract young people. He said improving the commuter train is key to bringing them back.
He suggested that the city contribute 34 percent of its new economic development income tax, or about $800,000 annually, during the project.
Questions from council members focused on how the city would benefit. Officials asked how many train stations would be in Hammond and how an extension would affect current riders who board the train in Hammond and East Chicago.
Visclosky couldn't directly answer many of the questions, but he made it clear that nothing would change without some action.
"I've made no guarantee for Hammond, Munster or Dyer except that if we don't act, no one will get anything," he said.
The plan calls for at least four stops along the current right of way, with the potential to expand past Dyer and into Lowell as a separate phase.
First District Councilman Mark Kalwinski asked Visclosky about whether the city could receive its money back if the project fell through. The congressman said Lake County would hold on to the funds in a separate account, so the funds could be returned.
Visclosky asked that the city make a decision by his deadline of March 31.
In other business, a new ordinance proposed by 6th District Councilman Homero Hinojosa would phase back "seniority days" for Hammond city firefighters. Those with 15 years of service would receive an additional day off with pay in 2014 and those with 25 years would receive two days. Next year firefighters with 20 years would receive three seniority days and those with 25 years would get five days.
Hinojosa said the city approved a budget before the final contract between the city and the firefighters union was settled, so money for seniority days is still in the budget.
"We already approved the same budget for the firefighters that we did in the last year, and that included the seniority days," Hinojosa said. "So where is that money going?"
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said Hinojosa's ordinance reverses the work done during negotiations with the firefighter's union and does not consider the financial toll on the city for providing those days off, plus any overtime costs required to cover all the shifts.
"The firefighters are getting their raises, and we got control over overtime pay," McDermott said. "Why would we turn it around and give it right back to them after everything we fought for?"
McDermott said he would veto the ordinance if it were approved by the council.