EDITORIAL: Commit to funding South Shore extension

2014-02-07T00:00:00Z EDITORIAL: Commit to funding South Shore extension nwitimes.com
February 07, 2014 12:00 am  • 

The South Shore Line commuter rail extension to Dyer is chugging along. But it needs to pick up more speed to meet the local funding match.

This is a project that has been talked about for decades, but now we're at the point where the rubber meets the road — or in this case, where the steel wheel meets the rail.

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., a member of the House Appropriations Committee, has been saying for months that if the local funding commitment isn't in place before the March 31 application deadline for the federal grant, those federal dollars might never materialize.

The risk of losing those federal dollars is too great to continue to dawdle. This is urgent. That deadline is just a few weeks away.

But we're also getting close to reaching the necessary funding commitment. Out of the $571 million total capital cost, the region is well on its way. The federal government will pay half, which makes the project manageable — daunting, but still manageable.

As with other major capital projects, the South Shore extension will be financed by issuing bonds. So a look at the annual debt service commitment for the local matching funds is the most helpful way to understand what's needed to get those trains rolling.

The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority expects to announce an $8 million annual commitment to the project today. That's half the local share right there.

Lake County government is already in for $2 million a year, and Munster has committed $279,623 a year — or 34 percent of the revenue from the new economic development income tax — for this project.

That leaves a shortfall of $5,720,377 a year, a gap that must be closed quickly.

Other Lake County municipalities should follow Munster's lead, offering the same 34 percent.

And let's not leave the state off the hook. Indiana stands to gain significant revenue if the railroad is built. The Indiana General Assembly needs to put some skin in this game, too.

In central Indiana, there is much commotion about a commuter rail project to serve affluent suburbs of Marion County. That project is just about improving access within Indiana. The South Shore project is different because it's not just about improving access for existing commuters but about tapping new jobs for Northwest Indiana resident as well.

The extension would bring an estimated 5,600 new riders each day. That's not counting any riders who already drive to an existing South Shore station. Their Chicago salaries would be a big boost to the local economy.

This project has major economic development potential for Northwest Indiana. It has been compared to the arrival of Bethlehem Steel in the 1960s. Yes, it's that important to the region's economy.

State lawmakers and Lake County municipalities must commit to making the South Shore extension finally happen. Build a brighter future for Northwest Indiana.

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