Many people have asked me what I think about Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb. My response is simple: He helped elect many of us, me included, as the former party chairman, so he came to the job prepared to work as a team. His focus is true: the people of Indiana.
Early in the campaign, then-Lt. Gov. Holcomb promoted the idea of double tracking the South Shore rail line, quickly grasping the benefit of connecting to the Chicago economic engine. However, the Indiana Senate was going to be a much tougher sell. It was necessary to do more than ask for a handout. Otherwise, every region in the state would expect something, too. We had to offer an investment benefit for the entire state.
House Enrolled Act 1144 became the basis for that investment. By creating a framework for multi-county participation with a single fiscal agent, we could speed up the transit district development process, raising property values for the local communities and sales and income tax for the state. Even those with limited bonding capacity could participate.
Surprisingly, as the process evolved and the bill began to take shape, I became aware there was no formal agreement in place committing each county financially to the project. It became necessary for 1144 to serve as the legal mechanism for handling payment, bonding and potential cost overruns. We could not take the risk that a $3 billion project fail because of an inadequate inter-local agreement between counties. The Northwest and North Central legislators from both parties agreed that we needed to finish the session with a comprehensive agreement.
That was the unique element of the process. All legislators agreed that the project needed to succeed. For once, there was no debate on the merits, just the mechanism. We met with officials from all four counties and several communities. We held public town hall meetings that offered valuable input on ways to improve the bill. By the time the bill was heard in the Senate committee, we had officials and concerned stakeholders from across the rail line testify on the merits of the project.
This was a team effort that I had never before experienced. People were working together who were not accustomed to communicating. The tone of the debate was different — no doubt driven by the many stakeholders back home.
Statewide, this was a small project, especially compared to a proposed billion-dollar-per-year road funding increase encouraged by local officials. Our infrastructure needed help, and the problem was much too big to cut our way to a solution. Any other year, $6 million per year for just one region would not likely survive.
Also in the background was a much-needed building for Purdue University Northwest's Hammond campus. We needed to replace an old building that required more deferred maintenance than made good sense. We’ve been pushing for this new facility for the five years I’ve been a representative and for several years before that.
This campus will benefit from the Westlake rail extension, making it a short shuttle to class. With the luck of a positive revenue forecast, that project survived, and Purdue Northwest will build the new building. It will indeed transform the campus.
These institutions are necessary to attract high-tech industry and the workers they require.
This was a big year for Northwest Indiana. It came together because we made a responsible pitch with a unified approach. It’s powerful what we can accomplish when we speak with one voice.