More than a decade ago, I recall sitting in an editorial board meeting with U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky where he pointed to a commuter rail map of the Chicago area.
In Illinois, rail lines reached out like tendrils in every direction to the suburbs. Once you looked east of the state line, though, it was only the lonely South Shore line, hugging the bottom of Lake Michigan. At the time, Visclosky was making the case for local tax dollars to match federal funds for a South Shore expansion study.
Transportation is a drum that Visclosky has been beating constantly this century, arguing that expanded rail is the key to expanded economic opportunity in Northwest Indiana. This year, the drumbeat is finally turning into action. The state Legislature’s approval this year of $6 million annually to the Regional Development Authority for the South Shore set the stage for the Westlake extension to Dyer.
Earlier this month, a delegation from Northwest Indiana made a pitch for a Regional Cities grant to help fund the double tracking of the existing South Shore line, something that would greatly reduce current travel times to and from Chicago.
After watching the live stream of the sales pitch for the grant, led by Bill Hanna, CEO of the RDA, I posted on Twitter to say it would be difficult to deny the case our local delegation made. Quicker commutes and transit-oriented development near existing rail stops would simply allow Northwest Indiana to catch up with Illinois' suburbs.
Soon, I was in a Twitter discussion with Jeff Terry, who believes train technology is outdated and it doesn’t make sense to invest in rail when driverless vehicles are on the horizon. He envisions automated cars that would link together like trains, making travel on roadways more efficient. With big tech companies such as Tesla, Google, Apple and Uber in the game, the development of driverless vehicles is accelerating.
Automated cars are an attractive thought, particularly the increased freedom of not being limited to the route and stops along a rail line. But even autocars require infrastructure spending, as we saw this week when Gov. Mike Pence unveiled a $1 billion plan over the next four years to maintain the state’s roads and bridges. Pence, facing a tough re-election fight, is attempting to blunt criticism over Indiana’s surplus not being used to address repair needs.
Mass transit fed by driverless vehicles may one day be part of the Region’s transportation equation, though it’s hard to know when that day will come. Yes, trains are old technology, but they are here now. When it comes to transportation, Northwest Indiana has waited long enough.