Experts Say Better Commuter Access to Chicago is Key to The Region’s Future

The decline of heavy manufacturing is producing a “long-term structural shift” in the economy of Northwest Indiana, say Indiana University Northwest assistant professor of economics Micah Pollack and his colleague professor of finance Bala Arshanapalli. To meet the region’s need for good, high-paying jobs, they urge infrastructure investments that would improve connectivity to Chicago.

Pollak sees hope in infrastructure jobs that would better connect Northwest Indiana with high-paying jobs in Chicago. That would include the current plan to expand the South Shore commuter rail line to suburban communities in Lake County.

“Historically, Northwest Indiana has been different from other suburbs like Schaumburg,” he said. “They’re quite affluent areas as a result of different local policies, such as public transportation that lets residents get to downtown Chicago fast.”

He points out it’s more difficult for people to locate in Merrillville than Naperville, because the latter has a higher-frequency of commuter trains at a more consistent speed going to downtown Chicago. Also, people in Naperville don’t have to drive 15 to 20 minutes for a 45-minute train ride.

The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority and the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District are currently funding the initial environmental impact study for the West Lake Corridor. This is the first step towards applying for federal matching funds for the $571 million project. Scheduled to begin service by 2023, West Lake together with improvements on the existing line will put Northwest Indiana on a level playing field with our real competitors: those Illinois suburbs around Chicago. Since 1970, those suburbs have outgrown Northwest Indiana 17 to 1 in population and taken the lion’s share of new and expanding business. Clusters of business and development have grown up in places like Naperville because of access to transit.

Since our inception in 2006, the RDA has invested about $30 million in regional commuter transportation projects, including new rail cars for the South Shore line, and parking and station improvements for the ChicaGo Dash bus service. Commuters who use these services every day to travel to jobs in Chicago bring back a combined $430 million in personal income annually to spend on goods and services here in Northwest Indiana. The West Lake Corridor expansion will result in an additional $231 million in personal income for the regional economy.

Porter County Airport Project Gets Final Local Match

portrer county airportThe Porter County Council has agreed to contribute $317,197 to a pot of state and local funds that will unlock more than $10 million in federal funds for the reconstruction of the main runway at the Porter County Regional Airport.

While a large sum, the true value of the money is its linchpin role in securing the balance of the funding for the massive $11.3 million project.

The Federal Aviation Administration is contributing 90 percent of the money, the state is picking up 5 percent and the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority agreed to provide half of the remaining 5 percent as long as the county comes up with the other half, Porter County Municipal Airport Authority President Paul Chael told the council.

The RDA approved its portion of the match last August. “Just like the airport in Gary, the Porter County airport is a significant driver of regional economic activity,” RDA President and CEO Bill Hanna said at the time. “A 2012 estimate put its economic impact at more than $17 million annually. This grant is a small but vital piece to access federal funding for urgently needed repairs and upgrades.”

The overall project includes rehabilitation and reconstruction on runway 9-27, which is in danger of falling below minimum service levels, as well as completion of a High Intensity Runway Lighting Rehabilitation project which would replace lighting components that are beyond their service lifetime. According to the airport, work on runway 9-27 is set to begin this spring and take about 70 days to complete.