Visclosky Encourages Action On South Shore Expansion
March 14, 2014–Sarah Holst, Lakeshore Public Radio–
The latest on efforts to expand the South Shore commuter railroad here in northwest Indiana, from the Lakeshore’s Sarah Holst.
Indiana’s District 1 Congressman Pete Visclosky is working on what he calls a “generational imperative,” to expand the South Shore Commuter Rail line into southern Lake County. He brought that message to Merrillville Monday night, as the keynote speaker for a meeting of the Emerging Leaders Network. Visclosky told the crowd of about three hundred that developing our connection to Chicago, and it’s economy, would be a transformational investment.
“Chicago’s economy is larger than Sweden’s.” Visclosky told those in attendance. “We need to do everything we can to maximize that potential, get people to and from those jobs, and help migrate that economy to Northwest Indiana.”
Ben Bocknowski, a member of the Emerging Leaders Network, added “The way forward is connecting to the global powerhouse that is the Chicago economy, literally 20 or 30 miles up the road, and rails connect us. They make that connection.”
The proposed expansion, known as the West Lake Corridor, would include an eight-mile extension south from the current rail line to Munster and Dyer, with possible future extensions to Lowell and Valparaiso.
As for the project’s timeline, Visclosky says “If we hit every milestone we need to hit, and we’re going to do it, to make this happen, that first train is going to run nine years from now.”
Visclosky says that federal funding is available to cover half of the project’s initial cost, but state and local leaders will have to come up with the other half, as well as long term operational costs. To be eligible for federal funds this year, a local commitment of $16 million dollars annually must be in place by March 31. The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, or RDA, has committed half of that amount, and they’re counting on towns and cities to offer up the other $8 million in the next 21 days. RDA President Bill Hanna says achieving that goal is possible.
“It’s reasonable because there’s new economic development income tax out there at the disposal of the local communities and the county.” Says Hanna. “We realize there’s a lot of needs to take care of, but there’s very few things in our future that would bring the return on investment that this particular one, this project would.”
The economic development income tax is a portion of the Lake County income tax, which passed last year, and is available for cities and towns to use at their discretion for development projects. One municipality that has already committed a portion of its economic development tax revenues to the West Lake Corridor is the city of Hobart. Mayor Brian Snedecor says the city agreed to contribute twenty percent of its development tax revenues because leaders there believe the extension will bring new revenue and opportunities into the city.
“We believe strongly in mass transportation. We believe it’s the future for this region.” says Snedecor. “If we are truly going to be a competitive area with the Chicagoland area of jobs then we have to commit to mass transportation.”
State lawmakers are pitching in too. Senate Bill 367 closes a tax loophole that will redirect $4 million of casino revenues each year to help cover operational expenses. That bill passed out of a conference committee in the final hours of the session on Thursday night.