U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky believes the new Lake County local income tax could finally be the fuel needed to expand the South Shore commuter service.
The congressman has recently been meeting with regional leaders to get support for the West Lake Corridor, eight miles of track between Hammond to Dyer estimated to cost more than $464 million to build, and another $9.6 million annually to operate enough trains expected to carry 4,510 passengers a week into Chicago.
Visclosky recently told The Times that, in spite of partisan backbiting that threatens another federal government shutdown next year, he is confident Washington will make $11 billion available annually for public transportation money -- and Northwest Indiana must grab its share.
The federal government can cover some, but not all, those expenses.
"On trains and buses, if you don't have a non-federal match, you are getting nothing. The county is going to have to be a participant," Visclosky said.
And if the county antes up a share of South Shore money, others could follow, he said.
"I'm very hopeful it will become irresistible for the state to say the county exercised the tax, the county has made a commitment. And at that point, the RDA (Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority) also can come up with a very detailed financial plan," Visclosky said.
It remains to be seen whether county officials are all aboard. They resisted an earlier legislative proposal to have $24 million a year in local Lake County income tax earmarked permanently to the RDA for South Shore use.
"I've had conversations with Pete," Lake County Council President Ted Bilski said last week. "I am absolutely in favor of expansion, but then we come to who is responsible to pay for it. I don't have the means of doing anything with it right now."
County Commissioner Michael Repay, D-Hammond, said he too supports the West Lake Corridor -- theoretically.
"The congressman and some legislators have asked what kind of local participation we would be willing to do in the name of South Shore expansion," Repay said.
"Do I want to see it. Yes, but all of the numbers I've heard are theoretical, which are okay for right now, but eventually we will have to get real numbers."
Repay said the county cannot do it alone.
"A local match could be local county, local city or state match," he said, adding everyone is working under an assumption "the state would be obligated to operate it" since state funds already support the current commuter service.
Assumptions and good wishes for a South Shore expansion is a good start, Visclosky said, but more is needed.
"We are going to have to recognize that one day we are going to have to spend some money here. Their next step is to get themselves together as a working group, and everybody should always be invited. So lets get this oar in the water ASAP," Visclosky said.