MARC CHASE: Weighing the cost of the ticket to ride

2014-04-01T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: Weighing the cost of the ticket to rideMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
April 01, 2014 12:00 am  • 

I want to board the train.

But like many folks in Northwest Indiana considering the merits of extending the South Shore Line commuter rail to Dyer, I need to know if the price on the ticket to ride is worth it.

I respect U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., and what he's trying to do. Having grown up in the western suburbs, I've seen firsthand what access to commuter rail can do for a community.

The South Shore Line already runs through the urban corridor of Lake County, and I have no doubt extending it to Dyer, as Visclosky is proposing, would carry benefits throughout the region, including attracting more white collar folks to live in the region and commute to Chicago.

But I'm not convinced the benefits equal or exceed the 34 percent of economic development funds — derived from the newly adopted and controversial local option income tax — Visclosky is asking Lake County communities to contribute for two or three decades.

A number of region communities aren't convinced either.

For the record, I opposed the Lake County income tax from the start and still argue local government should prove responsible management of existing revenue before bleeding more from taxpayers. But lamenting that issue won't un-ring the bell of a tax already passed by county government.

Visclosky wants 34 percent of the economic development portion of the tax money — or about $8 million annually for the next 20 or 30 years — to expand commuter rail. The local funds would be used to attract a federal match.

Griffith pledged the far smaller sum of $20,000 per year — or about 5 percent of the economic development tax revenues.

Griffith officials — like a number of communities in Lake County — question the overall benefits the town will receive from a $571 million extension through only two new communities, Munster and Dyer.

A number of the communities generally supporting the extension plan aren't pledging the full amount Visclosky requested.

So far, only two communities — Munster, which lies on the proposed route and would get direct benefit from the extension, and Schererville — pledged the full 34 percent. Most of the 10 communities pledging funds to date are in the 20 to 25 percent range.

Dyer — the very community in which the extension would end — pledged only 15 percent during a meeting of the Town Council last week.

As of Monday afternoon, the urban core of Gary, Hammond and East Chicago — all of which already have South Shore train stations — were standing on the boarding platform, weighing whether to jump on the train extension.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. is leery, wondering what guarantees come attached to the millions his city is being asked to invest.

There are no guarantees the rail will ever extend further south, either.

Regionalism is a notion I support. In the end, though, municipal leaders answer to constituents who put them in office.

They must balance real needs — including crumbling local infrastructure — with dollars and cents of future investments.

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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