The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission approved a new long-term plan in May that will guide its administration of federal transportation dollars in coming years.
"NWI 2050" considers the three-county area's needs for the next three decades. The local officials on the commission also approved a five-year plan — a Transportation Improvement Program, or TIP — that details specific projects to receive federal funds.
The federal government requires that municipal planning organizations like NIRPC complete a new regional plan every four years. A new TIP is developed every two years.
"This is going to guide development and transportation investments going into the future," NIRPC Executive Director Ty Warner said before the commission voted on "NWI 2050." "This is no small thing that we're about to talk about and adopt today."
The "NWI 2050" plan tops 200 pages and is divided into chapters with the themes "Connected," "Renewed," "United" and "Vibrant." It considers several possible futures based on economic, technological and demographic changes. The Region's inherent advantages, including Lake Michigan and proximity to Chicago, play significant roles.
A "Connected" Northwest Indiana is essential for "working, playing, living and learning," the plan states. "Every day, 24,625 residents commute between Lake and Porter counties and 6,856 individuals commute between Porter and LaPorte counties."
Approximately 60,000 commuters travel between Illinois and Northwest Indiana each workday, according to the plan.
Recreational spaces have become fragmented as land is developed. "Human-related land-cover accounts for nearly 73% of the regional landscape today." Natural land areas "consist of patches of complex ecosystems scattered throughout the region."
"NWI 2050" concludes that planning and funding efforts should be directed toward land development emphasizing accessibility, and to connecting fragmented natural areas, municipalities and counties with roads, trails and transit networks.
The "Renewed" chapter highlights, among other challenges, shifts away from older centers of population.
"The movement of people out of these existing communities and into undeveloped areas has created challenges for the region," according to the plan. "This outward growth away from the existing centers is costly, stretching needed services such as water and sewer extensions, increased patrols, and emergency response, with miles of additional asphalt to maintain."
And employment has not shifted to the degree population has: "The disconnect between employment centers and new residential development has increased the distance between people and their workplaces and is causing longer commutes, with an increase in travel demand and associated congestion on the region's roadway network."
Future planning and funding should be targeted to maximizing growth in existing centers, both to renew them and to protect undeveloped natural areas and farmland.
The "United" theme highlights quality of life, and particularly spreading growth across the Region. "The vision aims to reduce traditional patterns of inequity and support communication and revitalization efforts in areas experiencing impacts of prolonged disinvestment."
Transit, access to healthy food, health care and recreational areas including the lakeshore, and to planning and funding transportation projects with respect for environmental justice.
Finally, a "Vibrant" Northwest Indiana "stems from the linkages shared among strategic transportation investments, quality economic development, a healthy and sustainable environment, human capital investments with shared outcomes, and smart land uses."
"NWI 2050" concludes with its longest chapter, an action plan that creates a complex scoring process for transportation projects — 77 project types are assigned to 13 funding programs, and individual project proposals within those programs are evaluated using 98 performance measures.
The 2050 plan was developed at the same time as the 2020-2024 TIP, which lists hundreds of transportation-related projects planned for the five-year period, ranging from projects as large as the South Shore Line's West Lake Corridor to some as small as local sidewalk projects. The intention is to score them consistently with the "NWI 2050" goals — so, for example, there's no money in the TIP for new roads, except for projects already in their engineering phase.
"New roadways may connect gaps in the road network, but they can also spur more land development away from existing corridors and take away from reinvesting in areas where infrastructure investments have already been made," the plan concluded. But, "maintaining and improving the existing roadway network remains paramount."
The 2020-2024 TIP includes nearly $371 million in projects that will receive federal funding. By the end of the "NWI 2050" plan, an estimated $2.7 billion will have been spent on such projects.