Last year, Congressman Pete Visclosky challenged civic and business leaders in Northwest Indiana to find the funds to build the long-discussed West Lake Corridor. Since then, officials and groups from around the region, including the Regional Development Authority have worked together to meet this goal. Our first phase would involve building a line from Hammond to Dyer in west Lake County. But why extend the South Shore line? How would it benefit the region? Recently, we sat down with members of two groups, One Region and Emerging Leaders of Northwest Indiana, to discuss these questions.
Q: What has been your experience with mass transit?
Dan Lowery: Twice in my career it was invaluable. We couldn’t have survived without it. When I was a young first-time supervisor living in South Bend, they had a very robust transit system. My wife was home with two children and I took the bus to work every day. That left our very small Ford Fiesta for my wife to get around and take the kids to the doctor and so on. It made all the difference for us as a young family. Later on I lived in Chesterton and took advantage of the South Shore going to downtown every day.
Lou Martinez: I’m a product of the Gary Public Transportation System. I rode the bus growing up for school, social activities, for dating, you name it.
William Lowe: I come from the New York City area so I found myself taking public transit to school every day. I came in from Long Island so I took a bus and then the subway. As Dan said some things are impossible if you are not going to avail yourself of public transportation. I was only able to go to that school because there was a way for me to get there from a significant distance.
Eddie Melton: When I look at some of my peers who have moved away to cities with a more fluid transit system, they don’t have to spend a lot of money on gas, but they still have access to a lot of different quality of life elements people look for as well as access to recreation and employment.
Matt Glaros: I was living in Denver when they began building their light rail system, which runs through all of the outlying areas of Denver. It isn’t even finished yet but every area it’s been through has been revitalized. You see people moving in, new housing going up; these areas are now some of the best places to live for young people and young families who don’t want to live in the city but do want easy access.
Q: Why is now the time to expand commuter rail?
Dan Lowery: Because we are about to hit the wall. Because there is such a huge tax differential between Illinois and Northwest Indiana, we have over the last ten years seen a tremendous flood of people relocating to Indiana. Our challenges have been masked by that tax differential but we cannot expect that to last. When Illinois finally wises up about taxes that spigot will cut off. Second, if you go to south Lake County, you will see the gridlock we have on roads and the price we are paying. If you are coming from Winfield or Lowell or a lot of other locations it is getting to the point where gridlock will make that long commute so uncomfortable that the spigot of people moving here again will be cut off.
William Lowe: While we have had people move from Illinois to Indiana, if you look at the demography of Northwest Indiana that has had a minimal, if any, effect on the age structure. If the population continues to age rapidly even with that in-migration, that points to something else: how do we attract and retain younger people? Expanding transportation options will enhance the attractiveness of Northwest Indiana as an affordable place to launch one’s life.
Lou Martinez: Absolutely. I have two daughters who live in San Diego because there were better opportunities and more choices. It’s really the younger generation we are building this rail for. It’s all about understanding that our economic engine is not Indianapolis; our economic engine is Chicago. We need to get that into our mindset.
Eddie Melton: When we look at access and our proximity to Chicago, they provide a lot of opportunity for residents here to access the economy in Chicago – and also brings to individuals in the Chicago area an opportunity to look at Indiana as a place to live.
Matt Glaros: The most important reason right now is that we have support from Congress Visclosky and if we don’t seize the opportunity now we might not get another for a long time. Demographically we also have the largest group of Millennials starting to come of age now and over the next decade they will be looking at where to live and where to start families. By laying down tracks now we can turn the exodus of young people from Northwest Indiana back.
Q: Is it just the money that has held up South Shore expansion?
Dan Lowery: One challenge is the structure of local government. At the county level, decision-making is very diffuse. It’s hard for county government to voice a vision for the region.
Matt Glaros: There are so many government groups that have to agree that have not historically agreed on very much. I think they can do it. Now is the time to work together.
Lou Martinez: I go back to a report done years ago, “Transforming the Economy of Northwest Indiana.” Part of that report said that we in Northwest Indiana have a negative opinion of ourselves fostered by many elements. So I believe part of it is being able to say, “yes we can get this done, yes we can do that.”
Q: What are the benefits of expanding the South Shore?
Dan Lowery: It has been proven that if you build it, they will come. You will see commercial development follow, housing development is going to follow and they will be mutually supportive of one another. Where does that end up? You can look at some of the suburbs of Chicago like Naperville and see the quality of life they enjoy there. They are feeding off of Chicago in some respects but they are fully self-supportive communities at the same time.
William Lowe: These developments showed up rather quickly in the Twin Cities where I was for a number of years. After commuter rail opened up, ridership exceeded expectations, as did economic and residential development along the rail lines. This is a pattern one finds internationally with commuter rail.
Matt Glaros: I think the biggest benefit is that we will build an area that will attract people to come back after they have gone to college or had a chance to step out into the wider world. That alone makes this the right time to lay the groundwork.
Eddie Melton: Last year, there were 32 Fortune 500 companies in Illinois, and more than 20 of them had their headquarters in the suburbs around Chicago. If we had more access to Chicago, companies could move out of the Loop to Northwest Indiana just as they have moved out to those other suburban counties in Illinois. If a Fortune 500 company moved from Chicago to Northwest Indiana, that would send a national message.