Expanding the South Shore line

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Getting on board: The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority promotes an expansion of the South Shore line to give residents of the area more access to jobs in Chicago. | Supplied photo

Earlier this month, Site Selection magazine released its analysis of business growth in major cities around the country. For Northwest Indiana, this analysis contained both good news – and bad. To the good, the Chicago metro area, of which we are a part, was the No. 1 metro area in the U.S. for corporate investment. The magazine counted 373 new and expanding businesses in the area. Their total investment was $2.8 billion, which created more than 10,000 jobs.

The bad news? Virtually all those companies were on the Illinois side of the border. Despite Indiana’s tax advantage over Illinois and our lower cost of living, only a few companies invested here. At the same time, the lack of options for commuting into Chicago from Northwest Indiana means Hoosiers have a harder time competing for those thousands of new Chicago jobs.

This is why the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority (RDA) has joined with business groups, county and municipal leaders, and Congressman Pete Visclosky to champion expanded South Shore service in Northwest Indiana. “This is a generational imperative,” Congressman Visclosky said. Northwest Indiana faces a declining and aging population, dwindling household income and a growing lack of opportunity. Yet just over the state line is a vibrant city with an economy the size of Sweden’s. The only way to reverse trends here is to connect more closely with the economy there.

The Chicago Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is a tri-state economy encompassing 9.5 million persons and 14 counties. It ranks as the eighth-largest economy by GDP in the world and the third-largest in the U.S., behind only New York City and Los Angeles. There are 4.5 million jobs in the Chicago MSA – more than in the entire state of Indiana. An investment by Northwest Indiana counties and the state in more closely connecting the region’s workforce to the job generator that is Chicago will reap long-term economic benefits.

A glance at U.S. Census data shows there is plenty of room for growth here. Between 29 percent and 40 percent of residents of the counties surrounding Cook County in Illinois commute into Cook County to work. But only about 20 percent of Lake County residents, and just six percent of Porter County residents, do the same, despite similar travel distances. Because of our lack of connectivity to Chicago, we don’t get our “fair share” of either job opportunities in Chicago, or business development in the metro area.

Expanding the South Shore will not be inexpensive, but can be done without raising taxes. Half of the estimated $571 million price tag is eligible for federal funding if a local match can be generated. To this end, local communities and Lake County are being asked to invest a portion of their existing economic development tax in rail expansion. The RDA has pledged $8 million annually to match these funds. Working together, we can build a region that is truly integrated into the greater Chicago market, offering a new opportunity for jobs, investment and growth in Northwest Indiana.

Provided by Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority