Northwest Indiana has been shaped and continues to be sustained by transportation.

What are now local highways, such as U.S. 30, were once trading trails used by Native American. Many of the region’s small towns were founded along railways. And our steel mills continue to unload iron ore from Lake Michigan ships and send finished steel throughout the world by rail, ship and truck, as part of Northwest Indiana’s century-old industrial heritage.

With its vast transportation infrastructure, comprised of railroads, highways, airports, ports, and waterways, Northwest Indiana has a strong claim on the title “The Crossroads of America.”

Residents and the regional economy rely on a robust, complex transportation system to facilitate the movement of goods, services and people.

Despite access to industrial and commercial transportation, many of the region’s public transit options are fragmented, inadequately funded, and in need of significant infrastructure improvements.

Northwest Indiana contends with an absence of services that often are considered essential to a community’s health and future economic development.

Thousands of Northwest Indiana residents struggle to meet such basic necessities as health care, childcare and employment simply because they lack access to affordable and efficient transportation.

According to One Region’s Quality of Life Indicators Report, only one-third of the estimated potential demand for public transit in Northwest Indiana is met. The absence of an adequate transit system impedes the ability of our most vulnerable citizens to access the services they require.

Commuters, for whom public transit is an option, rather than a need, also stand to benefit from an economical and environmentally conscious transportation system to offer a less costly and more convenient alternative to driving.

Region businesses and employers would also benefit from a fully integrated and comprehensive transportation network that supports commerce and complements workplace efficiency.

The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission deserves our thanks for its good work to address some of these issues, through the four-year Transportation Improvement Program. A focus on public transit projects, such as operating assistance funds for Gary Public Transportation Corp., or the addition of new rail cars for the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, would be welcome for individual communities and transit companies and, perhaps, an important step in the development of a broader regional transportation strategy.

Higher education institutions, like Indiana University Northwest, are also well-positioned to assist in these planning discussions, through academic research and scholarship.

The Indiana University Northwest School of Business and Economics, for example, has supported the Indiana High Speed Rail Association’s pursuit of funding and visibility through a student-led business-planning project. And an IU Northwest business professor recently joined other IU colleagues on a proposal to evaluate the need, benefit and public support for high speed rail in Fort Wayne, which can serve as a model for similar research, both locally and statewide.

We must continue to engage these regional conversations and commitments if Northwest Indiana is to fill the critical gaps in its transportation services and infrastructure.

So please become informed about the transportation needs in your community.

In the meantime, offer to assist a friend, a neighbor or a colleague who needs to get to work, to the doctor’s office, or to the grocery store.

In these ways, you can help Northwest Indiana’s residents to attain a higher quality of life, one in which the disabled are not isolated, the underprivileged can travel to work, the ill can receive care, and all of our citizens can participate fully in the social and economic life and future of our region.

William J. Lowe is chancellor of Indiana University Northwest in Gary and co-chairman of the One Region organization. The opinons are the writer's.

Politics/History Editor Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.