CHRIS WHITE: It's time to get on board for rail expansion

2014-02-16T09:41:00Z 2014-02-27T17:36:34Z CHRIS WHITE: It's time to get on board for rail expansionBy Chris White
February 16, 2014 9:41 am  • 

Since my arrival in Northwest Indiana six months ago, I've made it a point to get involved in a number of organizations and participated in scores of community meetings to get acquainted with my new home. I made a conscious decision not to write my first column until I felt I was familiar enough with the region to express an opinion worth considering. Today, it’s time.

Over the past several months, no matter where I was or who I was meeting with, one topic was always brought up. Ever since U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky issued his challenge to build the West Lake Corridor, to expand and upgrade the South Shore commuter line, people have been asking, what do we need to do?

The expansion itself just seems to make sense for the region. The Chicago metro area is the 21st largest economy in the world — larger than that of Switzerland — but the only way for most of our residents to get to the heart of the city is to drive personal cars over congested roads. Public transportation is woefully lacking here.

In an area struggling with high unemployment, there are more jobs within a couple miles of Millennium Station than in all of Northwest Indiana. The region has lost close to 10 percent of its population in the past 40 years. How fast could we grow if our Illinois neighbors, fed up with high tax burdens, could move to the region, knowing there was quick, affordable reliable public transportation into the Loop?

Back in November, Pete challenged us to get the train moving forward by March 31. There are federal matching funds available currently, but there's no guarantee that the money will always be there. Now is the time to act.

The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, Lake County, Munster and others have already pledged all but $5.7 million in debt service funds needed to qualify for federal support. In all, the first phase will cost $571 million.

I applaud the foresight shown by these leaders, and I am sure other municipalities will get on board as the deadline draws closer.

Of more immediate concern is the need for our legislative delegation to show their support by voting to pass Indiana Senate Bill 367. As it currently reads, this bill will provide state funds for the RDA to place in escrow to cover the first five years of operating expenses of the expanded South Shore Line. Since this measure deals with the way funds generated from casinos are spent, it’s understandable some communities would feel ownership and wish to maintain local control of the funds. The truth is, these state tax dollars could go back into the state coffer if the region does not pull together and use them for the betterment of the region.

Some may question the investment in this expansion. The first leg, the expansion to Dyer, has an estimated price tag of $571 million. But the federal government would cover up to half the cost. State and local investment of about $285 million would generate a projected $147 million per year in new income for Indiana residents. As the congressman points out, this would have the greatest impact on the state since the Bethlehem Steel plant was built in the 1960s. And it will all be done with no new taxes.

People throughout the region are banding together and showing their support. It’s time for our legislators to get on board. Stop the bickering. Take positive action. This project has been pursued for three decades. If we don’t act now, we may not see progress of this scale again in our lifetimes.

My grandfather used to say the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time is today. If we want to make NWI a more livable, prosperous region, it’s time to get on board.

Chris White is publisher of The Times.

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