Ridin’ the Rails in Da Region

Our next BizVoice magazine (available online February 26) features four Northwest Indiana leaders talking about what it’s going to take for the Region to thrive economically. Extension of the South Shore rail service (a mainstay from South Bend to Chicago and stops inbetween) is part of the discussion, but the following didn’t make the final cut for the story.

Leigh Morris, who is chairman of the Northwest Indiana RDA (that’s Regional Development Authority) and oversees the Indiana Toll Road for the state Department of Transportation, noted the two proposed South Shore extensions are "from Hammond south through Munster and down to Lowell and Crown Point; the other one is an extension from the main line down to Valparaiso in Porter County."

As for the timelines, Morris adds, "Both of these projects are in the process of feasibility evaluations and studies. There are a variety of issues that have to be addressed. The RDA’s position is that both of these routes must be studied sumultaneously. We may do one before the other, but it is not one or the other; it’s both."

With existing rail corridors in place for both, "they could happen fairly expeditiously, within a five-year time frame. One or both could be well underway or even in operation in that time frame. A lot of that depends on being able to assemble the dollars that are involved (more than a billion through regional, state and federal resources).

The public reaction, in Porter County in particular, has been negative as the message about affordability (50% federal match) and economic development opportunities has been overshadowed by that nasty three letter word — tax.

Morris summarizes: "We’ve allowed people to think that we’re going to extend these railroad tracks down here, and there will be a bunch of people getting on the train and going to Chicago. It’s so much more than that. This is the catalyst that will cause major new investment and the creation of new sustainability in our communities."

On the passenger and freight side, Morris offers an interesting tidbit. "We have probably the single most congested piece of rail in the entire national on the Norfolk Southern between Porter, Indiana and Chicago." Stimulus funding is pending to address that.

Read this story and more from Northwest Indiana (and from both K-12 and higher education) in the March-April BizVoice.