Much has been written about the simple rationale for extending commuter rail service in Northwest Indiana. Everyone knows it's about bringing Northwest Indiana residents to high-paying jobs in Chicago. But that's far from the whole story.
Keith Benman’s series on commuter rail last week shows that expansion of South Shore service in Northwest Indiana, coupled with improvements along the existing line, has the power to bring improvements to host communities, and those benefits spread far beyond those communities.
Benman's stories looked at how Metra stations have influenced Chicago's Illinois suburbs.
Orland Park, for example, is seeing the benefits of transit-oriented development around the station at LaGrange Road and 143rd Street.
"This station is important to us because we are building a downtown around it," Karie Friling, Orland Park's director of development services, said.
That includes a 295-unit, $65 million luxury apartment building opened two years ago. It's now 96 percent occupied. There's a $1.3 million hike-and-bike path bridge over LaGrange Road. A 120,000-square-foot University of Chicago Medical Center is being built in an empty lot just east of the train station, and a Mariano's grocery is being built, along with a 230-unit apartment building.
This is the kind of development that could be expected in Northwest Indiana as the South Shore is extended and as improvements are made along the existing line.
"Transit-oriented development is about more than just train access. It's about building vibrant communities," Yonah Freemark said. Freemark, a manager at Chicago's Metropolitan Planning Council, specialized in transit-oriented development.
Valparaiso is already headed in that direction, long before the South Shore will come to that community. The city is planning a transit-oriented development downtown, linking its two bus lines — the intracity V-Line and the intercity Chicago Dash — as well as a nearby rail line.
By linking the two bus services, and encouraging housing and retail near the station, residents would be able to get by with public transportation and avoid the expense of owning a car.
For people who can't drive or choose not to, transit-oriented development is a big attraction.
It looks likely the South Shore funding for the West Lake Corridor project will be secured by the Indiana General Assembly when the legislators finish their work this week. That's great news for the region.
Detractors who say the region should focus on bringing jobs to the region instead of exporting workers to Chicago aren’t seeing the whole picture. This should open their eyes to the many benefits of the investment in commuter rail.
Commuter rail isn't just about sending workers to jobs elsewhere. It's also about reducing pollution, improving the quality of life and revitalizing communities.