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GUEST COMMENTARY: Commuter rail is route to brighter future for NWI
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GUEST COMMENTARY: Commuter rail is route to brighter future for NWI

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Five years from now, Northwest Indiana will be well into the process of an historic reorientation as we look to become competitive with the rest of the Chicago suburbs in the contest for people, investment and opportunity.

While Indiana’s tax policy, lower costs and incentives are important, they are not enough to overcome the advantages possessed by Illinois’ Chicago suburbs. Over the last several decades, employers and people have elected to invest around commuter rail infrastructure and population growth areas in those locations, leaving Indiana as less expensive but less successful.

For more than 25 years, expansion of commuter rail in Northwest Indiana has been the subject of study and conversation. Thanks to actions taken on both a local and state level in the past year, we are finally on the verge of accomplishing this goal:

  • The RDA and NICTD have completed a 20-year strategic business plan for the South Shore commuter rail system incorporating the West Lake Corridor expansion, as well as other improvements to the existing line and strategies for transit-oriented development.
  • The General Assembly passed, and the governor signed, legislation that directed funds recouped from closing a tax loophole to the Regional Development Authority for the creation of an operating fund for the West Lake Corridor.
  • To date, nearly a dozen communities in Lake County, and the county itself, have pledged about $4 million a year for 30 years to construct the new rail line. More commitments are pending.

From individual communities to the county to the RDA to the General Assembly, the region has spoken – and put “skin in the game.” Now, the final step is upon us. Legislation proposed in the Indiana House of Representatives sets up a grant program under which the RDA can receive $9.4 million annually in state funding for rail expansion in Northwest Indiana through 2045.

This funding would be renewed on an annual basis and would be subject to an annual review by the General Assembly to ensure that the project remains on schedule, on budget, and is delivering a return on investment to the state. With this support, we will be able to apply for federal matching dollars to cover half of the estimated $571 million cost of the West Lake Corridor.

In addition to funding rail construction, the RDA will work with local communities to maximize the benefits of transit-oriented development. This isn’t just about making it easier for Hoosiers to get to Chicago, but also to make Northwest Indiana an even more attractive place to live, work and play.

The West Lake Corridor will service communities in the central and southern parts of the region. Along the new line, the RDA will provide funding for planning and development to help build transit-oriented development right from the ground up. In communities in Lake and Porter counties with existing South Shore stations, the RDA will use its grant funding in conjunction with local redevelopment agencies to re-develop land adjacent to and near those locations. The redeveloped land will be available for residential, mixed-use and commercial development.

As the RDA helps communities served by the South Shore create more attractive, secure neighborhoods, they will be better able to compete with other Chicago suburbs for not only young people and young families who work in Chicago, but also for businesses looking to start here or move from Illinois.

The RDA has demonstrated that Illinois businesses near the Indiana state border can be attracted to Indiana with targeted efforts. Given greater transit options, more of these businesses can relocate without disrupting their existing work force. Not only does this add jobs and investment in Indiana, but over time it will lead to population growth as people in Illinois move to Indiana to be closer to work.

All rungs of the development ladder must be strong when competing in a market like Chicago, New York or Los Angeles. To compete, we must minimize our barriers to trade. Increased access that will make us a true part of the third-largest economy in our nation along with our other advantages constitutes the way forward for Northwest Indiana and the whole state. This is the strategy for new jobs, new residents and new investment. This is the directional change that will turn Northwest Indiana in an established direction of success.

Hindsight is usually 20/20, but in this case it's about looking forward with clarity. In the year 2020, Northwest Indiana will literally be on the right track as we become the new hot spot in Chicago.

Bill Hanna is president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. The opinions are the writer's.

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