RICH JAMES: Hammond is missing link in Lake County unity

2014-04-09T00:00:00Z RICH JAMES: Hammond is missing link in Lake County unityBy Rich James: nwitimes.com
April 09, 2014 12:00 am  • 

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky is on the verge of doing what no other politician has ever done – unite Lake County.

Almost single-handedly, Visclosky has plodded around the county asking 19 municipalities to commit a portion of their county economic development income tax to extending the South Shore Line from Hammond to Dyer.

Eleven communities and the county have committed various amounts.

Dyer, which stands to gain more than others, promised a paltry sum, which tells me drinking the water there might not be advisable.

There is one major missing link that could have made Visclosky’s job easier.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott, who doubles as county Democratic chairman, is straddling the fence even though the extension has been discussed for some 25 years.

Although the mayor of the county’s largest city said he is committed to the project, he will ask the City Council next week to approve a resolution calling for a $250,000 environmental impact study.

Unfortunately, part of the city’s CEDIT money – that could go to rail expansion – will be used to fund the study.

“I think regionally, but my bottom line job is to take care of the citizens of Hammond,” McDermott said as he tried to explain why he is waffling.

It seems an environmental study is little more than an effort for Hammond to stiff-arm the project or commit a minimal amount of money at best.

Extending the train to Dyer will mean fewer folks driving to Hammond to board a train headed to Chicago. That has good and bad aspects.

McDermott said some fear that if fewer commuters drive to Hammond there would be a ripple effect on nearby businesses.

Like Hammond, there won’t be an immediate benefit to Gary, since both cities rest on the current rail line.

Nevertheless, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson has shown leadership in saying she will ask the council to commit 20 percent of the city’s CEDIT or about $793,000.

Perhaps the most acute comment I’ve heard came the other day from Crown Point Councilman Andrew Kyres, who said, “At the end of the day, what’s good for one region or one city or one town, the other town is going to benefit. This is an opportunity that I would hate we not take advantage of.”

As Kyres said, this is about improving the quality of life – financially included – of Lake County and beyond. That really hasn’t happened since the downturn in steel employment 35 years ago.

Come on, Mayor Mac, you know an environmental impact study is a waste of time and money.

Shoot, if I had a nickel for every South Shore expansion study that has been done over the last 25 years, I’d be a rich man.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. Email him at rjames@219.com. The opinions are the writer’s.

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