GUEST COMMENTARY: NWI needs to improve access to transportation

2014-03-30T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: NWI needs to improve access to transportationBy Mark Heckler nwitimes.com
March 30, 2014 12:00 am  • 

From the diverse cultures our cities showcase to the serene natural beauty of Lake Michigan — regardless of what you’re looking to do or see, you’ll find it just a short car, bus or train ride away.

The region’s second-greatest strength, after its proximity to Lake Michigan, is its central location within the national transportation network.

However, Northwest Indiana’s transportation system has room for improvement.

During the past decade the region has seen a trend away from urban living and toward suburban sprawl. Though the 2012 report showed a decline in the average miles driven by the average commuter in Northwest Indiana, traffic and congestion are on the rise. More than 80 percent of Northwest Indiana residents reported they commute to work alone each day, which contributes both to congested roadways and to the deteriorating quality of air in our region.

In addition, public transit systems in the area have a mixed history. Between 2000 and 2007, ridership on the South Shore Line to Chicago was up 17.6 percent as people commuted to the city for work or to enjoy exciting recreational and cultural experiences. But after the recession in 2008, ridership fell significantly.

One plan to alleviate a number of these issues is the proposed extension to the South Shore rail line that would connect Chicago and the Munster/Dyer area along the Monon Corridor, an abandoned railroad right-of-way, which is owned by the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District.

This project (funded with federal grants and local contributions, requiring no new taxes) could potentially generate $147.3 million annually both by providing Northwest Indiana residents access to job opportunities in Chicago that pay, on average, 40 percent more than similar jobs in Indiana, and by allowing Illinois residents to more easily access Northwest Indiana’s numerous recreational and cultural attractions.

And it could further encourage young people to remain in the region after graduating from college.

Regional bus systems have experienced an even steeper decline as service to many areas was cut due to budgeting constraints. 

The region’s public transportation weaknesses and increased dependence on automobiles have serious consequences. First, it means low-income and disabled users do not have the same access to employment and other opportunities that other residents have, which is an injustice.

Because of a lack of transportation options, a large portion of Northwest Indiana’s population is becoming isolated from the wonderful, enriching attractions and opportunities our region has to offer. This lack of accessibility also becomes a hurdle for low-income women and men to earn an education, as attending one of the region’s many fine colleges and university becomes a challenge. In addition, area businesses do not have the benefit of this population’s valuable ideas and skillsets in the workforce or their business as customers.

The increased dependence on automobiles also means our natural resources are threatened by the environmental impact of this trend. 

Access to efficient, affordable and reliable transportation is key to productive participation in society.

Mark Heckler is president of Valparaiso University. The opinions are the writer's.

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