• "Expansion" is the word for 2014, and the future

    In two days, 2014 will end. From what I’ve seen, most articles looking back on the year seem to think it was a bad one.

    Instead of jumping on that depressing bandwagon, I’ll take it upon myself to let everyone know it’s not all bad. For positives, one need not look further than right here in Northwest Indiana.

    The word for the Region in 2014, and probably into 2015 and beyond, is “expansion.” Seriously. Mainly it pertains our transportation infrastructure.

    Since I wrote about it this summer, the Gary Airport expansion plan is moving forward, while the proposal for a third Illinois Airport is still in limbo. The Illiana Expressway project got federal approval this year. And the proposed South Shore expansion is moving slowly, but forward nonetheless. All of these would mean more traffic and thus more people coming our way.

    True, any of these projects will take years to complete. The idea that the Region could be a major transportation hub is so far off that it seems like little more than a pipe dream right now. That doesn’t mean that such a goal is impossible to reach, however, or that we shouldn’t try.

    Many politicians and civic leaders have called for us to repair and upgrade the country’s dated infrastructure. Well, turning our corner of the state from just suburban sprawl to a major transportation hub sounds like a pretty good infrastructure project to me, one that an entire community could gather around and work toward. Potential benefits won’t be limited to the construction jobs needed to build one or all of these things. Should the Region one day become a major center of transportation, the additional travelers passing through would mean more customers for local businesses.

    Reaching such a goal will take time. It’ll take money. It’ll take a lot of work. But it might just be what Northwest Indiana is looking for. What better time to resolve to do it than the time of year people make resolutions to do better going forward?

  • An update on previous 2015 blog topics

    Several of the posts I’ve written here each week had an immediacy to that moment, or were on subjects that had no expiration date. Some subjects I’ve discussed, however, have had new developments since I first wrote about them. So, here are updates on a few things I’ve covered, a small refresher course on what’s happening in the Region and beyond:

    • Gary/Chicago International Airport Expansion: The airport’s expanded runway is now open! Meanwhile, we haven’t heard much new about the plans for that third Chicago airport that Illinois has been planning to build for decades…
    • South Shore Expansion: The proposed expansion of the rail line passed a big hurdle by getting funding approved in the state budget. After years of seeming stagnant, it looks like it’s going to happen.
    • Illiana Expressway: The proposed toll road had the support of our Governor Mike Pence and former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. But then current Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner beat him in the election last year, and, after keeping mostly mum on the subject during his campaign, rescinded his state’s support. It looks dead for the time being. But while I was wrong on this, my New Year’s predictions about the Airport and South Shore are looking pretty good right now.
    • Indiana Toll Road: The Australian firm IFM ended up buying the Indiana Toll Road, keeping it in private hands. We’ll see if they have better luck than the last owner.
    • Elonis v. United States: The Supreme Court case over whether one Anthony Elonis’ violent Facebook posts were legitimate threats or (as he contended) constitutionally-protected lyrics ended with the Court ruling 7-2 in favor of Elonis, overturning his conviction for making criminal threats. This is major because it’s one of the first cases to directly deal with free speech over social media, but it surely won’t be the last.
    • Glenda Ritz: Indiana’s beleaguered Superintendent of Public Instruction did, unfortunately, have her powers removed by the state legislature. However, since then, Governor Pence’s popularity has tanked, making him looking quite vulnerable in the 2016 election. And who’s among those competing for the Democratic nomination to take him on? None other than Glenda Ritz.
  • Bike-sharing would work in NWI

    Starting next spring, the South Shore line will allow passengers to bring bicycles on the train on the weekends. This is much sooner than the 2021 date that was previously indicated for a change in the rail’s bike policy.

    Did you even know this was an issue? Until this news broke, I hadn’t even considered the idea of taking bikes on the train, between the distance anyone very far South of the Expressway has to travel to get there, and the stations’ design not being very friendly to bikes, or even anyone averse to stair-climbing. But if you’re not like me and ever wanted to travel with your two-wheeler, you will soon be able to do so on the weekends.

    But why stop there? Could biking catch on as a major mode of transportation in the Region? It would certainly have benefits for residents and the environment, but how good a fit could it be?

    At first glance, Northwest Indiana might not look like a bike-friendly region, as the suburban sprawl seems designed solely with cars in mind. Look closer, however, and you’ll find a network of bike routes and trails that navigate the interconnected towns.

    A bike-sharing program, an idea that’s caught on and been quite successful in big cities, could pepper those routes to encourage people to use them instead of driving everywhere. Or, on a smaller scale, towns can have their own sharing service for residents to travel short distances around the area, and maybe add some bike lanes where sidewalks won’t suffice, as well.

    The main obstacle to turning the Region into a biking-friendly area isn’t feasibility or planning, but the cultural mentality of always driving everywhere. It’s unlikely biking will ever overtake driving completely, considering the sheer extent of said sprawl and other factors which make cars necessary. However, it’s very possible that, with the right promotion, people might consider biking over shorter distances around town instead of driving. A small change in habit on a wide scale could cut down on carbon emissions substantially, and not only will it save residents money they’d spend on gas, but it would also inject some much-needed exercise into their regular routines.

  • Does Gary have a chance in the airport game?

    Gary/Chicago International Airport has long been the third major airport in Chicagoland, behind O’Hare and Midway. Though if you didn’t know that, it doesn't come as a surprise. The airport has lagged behind its neighbors across the state line for years, and at this point in time doesn’t see any passenger air traffic.

    A long-gestating expansion seeks to make the airport a major transportation hub again. But an Illinois plan to build a new airport in the South Suburbs has long been in the works. Combined with the highly publicized Illiana Expressway presumably providing better transportation across state lines, such a plan could create a new major transport hub, and displace Gary as the new number three for Chicago.

    But is Gary’s downfall really so imminent? On paper at least, certain factors suggest Gary might have the upper hand.

    Despite some delays, Gary’s plan is currently moving forward, and has a long term plan. If it avoids any further road blocks, the planned runway expansion could be done by next year. The Illinois plan, meanwhile, is still in the land-buying stage (full details and a timetable are pretty vague).

    Support for the Illinois project also seems rather lukewarm. Governor Pat Quinn supports it and the Illiana expressway, while his gubernatorial opponent Bruce Rauner’s stance is less clear. It's possible the election in November could affect the plan's standing as a legislative priority. As for the citizens of Peotone, the town of just over 4000 people that the proposed airport will occupy, I couldn’t find hard figures regarding their approval. But this was one of the first outside links on the town’s Wikipedia Page. Not a good sign. And what of Gary’s plan? It had the support of former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, and seems to have the blessing of current mayor Rahn Emanuel, in addition to the support of Indiana officials.

    Still, I can’t help but have the feeling that in the end, if and when the Illinois airport is built, it will win out. Simply put, an in-state airport will have more claim to a Chicago connection. And whereas Chicago is a major city, Gary is barely on the map in the national consensus.

    Then again, that might be a big "if," as the project's been covered and talked about for years and seen very little progress. So for the time being, the Illinois third airport might be merely conjecture. On that level, Gary has the advantage...for now.

  • Ethanol is not the future

    When I was in high school (from which I graduated in 2008), a major topic in social studies and government classes was biofuels. At the time, there was talk that corn-derived ethanol would be the fuel of the future.

    Seven or eight years later, you don’t hear much about ethanol anymore. Yet, it’s quietly gained a foothold in the market. Most of the gasoline sold at U.S. gas stations is now 10 percent ethanol, which is the safe amount for most car models past and present.

    Now, Chicago is considering taking ethanol another step forward. The city is considering a bill that would require most gas stations to provide a pump that dispenses gas that’s 15 percent ethanol.

    There’s been a backlash, much of it from the petroleum industry, but also due to the fact that most engines (cars as well as other machines) aren’t made for 15 percent ethanol gas. But the larger issue, I think, is that in the long run, ethanol is not a great answer to our energy woes.

    For one, while it’s generally agreed upon that ethanol is cleaner to produce than regular gasoline, burning it still releases carbon dioxide into the air. Supporters contend that since the fuel comes from corn, the carbon dioxide burned is cancelled out by new corn plants that use it. But, burning it still puts it in the atmosphere, which isn’t what we want to do considering the very real dangers of climate change.

    Moreover, making ethanol creates a higher demand for corn, which causes the price of food to go up. All that aforementioned talk of an ethanol revolution was mostly derailed by a major jump in food prices in 2008. Given, that was an extreme circumstance caused by a number of factors. Still, with food prices already being affected by population growth and environmental turmoil, it’s not a good idea to select an energy path that’ll raise them further.

    Also, the mere fact that most vehicles can’t use it is a valid issue, precluding any environmental progress intended by the legislation. If the city wanted to incentivize its residents to make their driving habits greener, it would make more sense to push for a major change (something like, say, electric cars), not  an incrementally small one like an extra five percent ethanol in their tank.

  • For Toll Road, public ownership is better than privatization

    It’s been nearly six months since the Indiana Toll Road declared bankruptcy, and it recently appeared obvious who would take over its operations. But at the eleventh hour, some new developments popped up almost out of nowhere.

    It looked like a partnership between investors and Lake and LaPorte Counties was the front-runner. If approved, that deal would bring in $5 million a year for each county, plus even more in excess toll revenue.

    That bid was going through the approval process in recent weeks, and it seemed all but inevitable that it would win the lease. But at the end of last week, the Australian firm IFM Investments announced that it had put in the winning $5.725 billion bid for the Toll Road.

    Proponents of the Lake-LaPorte plan insist that the decision is not made, that the IFM plan has yet to meet government approval. Even so, IFM’s statement sounds pretty final and confident, more so than those of the Lake-LaPorte backers.

    I must say, the Lake-LaPorte plan seems like a better idea. For one, the last attempt to privatize the Toll Road ended up losing money for the owners, so it seems a little foolish to try again. But more so, a public (or at least semi-public) Toll Road could benefit the local communities, whereas a private one can only really benefit the owners.

    I can’t help but be reminded of our neighbor Chicago’s infamous parking meter debacle, in which the city sold control of its meters to a private firm for 75 years for $1 billion. The idea was almost immediately revealed to be a bad one on the city’s end, as it could have raised more than that over the long run by running the meters themselves, money a state in such massive debt could have really used.

    Fortunately, Indiana isn’t in nearly as dire financial straits as Illinois. Still, local ownership of the Toll Road is a better option than privatization, because whatever profits are made go to the counties. True, $5 million isn't a whole lot in terms of government expenses, but it's still an extra $5 million that can go to our schools, our roads, or toward something else in the community instead of just into the pockets of some company.

  • Halfway through 2016, what's come to pass?

    July is finally here and with it came the halfway point for 2016. I know, it went by fast, right?

    A lot has happened these past six months, for sure. But what has been happening around the Region? And more importantly, halfway through, are my predictions for what would happen this year coming true, or do I look like fool?

    Let’s take a look:

    • Obviously, the results of the state’s Governor and Senate races remain to be seen. Until Indiana makes its decision, these goes down as a no-decisions.
    • The Dunes pavilion banquet hall looks like it’s going to get its liquor license. Point for me.
    • Barely a peep so far this year on that South Shore expansion. But I was right about seeing bikes on the train. Two points.
    • The USW and ArcelorMittal agreed on a new three-year contract. That’s a welcome bit of good news for the local steel industry, especially amidst the reports of closures and layoffs that seemed frequent for a little while there. I’m not sure this will put an end to market uncertainty in the face of globalization, but I’ll happily surrender a point here with this outcome.
    • Is Illinois still dysfunctional? Consider the saga of the George Lucas Museum that wasn’t: The city wanted it. The state wanted it. Communities in need of jobs wanted it. Star Wars lovers from Portage to Milwaukee to Peoria wanted it. The only ones who didn’t want it were a handful of people dedicated to the preservation of the city’s parks, even though the park land in question was actually a parking lot. And in the end, they won, scaring Lucas off and killing the project. Obviously, this is small potatoes compared the state’s other problems, but  I'm focusing on it because dysfunction that’s comical is in rather short supply, and i'm trying to do something light and fun here. I’m taking the point on this one.
    • The World Series is still months away, but the Chicago Cubs are looking tough. When people talk about them having a chance, they’re serious, not saying that with an eye roll or a caveat about curses. Coincidentally, this season has corresponded with the U.K. voting to leave the European Union, which some alarmists are saying is the first step toward the splintering of Europe and other disastrous worldwide repercussions. So unless the Cubs fall into a post-All-Star Game swoon, maybe it isn’t too late to start preparing for the apocalypse…

    So, thus far, my predictions stand at three correct, one incorrect, and three to be determined. Not bad…

  • Indiana Toll Road bankruptcy shows downside of leasing highways

    If you spend as much time scouring the web for political stuff as I do, you know that roads have become a point of contention in the debate about government spending (“roads” being shorthand for public necessities that some say should be privatized). If recent events in Indiana are any indication, at least the issue of literal roads can go down as a loss for the privatization crowd.

    The Indiana Toll Road was sold in 2006, and it operations were transferred from the state to the private Indiana Toll Road Concession Company. The company is a subsidiary of two foreign companies: the Spanish firm Cintra and the Australian McQuarrie Atlas Roads.

    A quick perusal of the company website shows that Cintra is a major company that owns toll roads and parking (presumably the much more profitable of the two) throughout the world. In other words, they know the business well. McQuarrie, on the other hand, is just part of a larger investment bank. The site for their transportation company features some information about their private highway holdings, but seems much more designed to woo investors into buying a stake in their operation.

    Though this might not be a good investment, if the Indiana Toll Road is any indication: today, the Indiana Toll Road Concession Company filed for bankruptcy.

    I can’t say I’m surprised. The toll road costs a few bucks to use each time. Even if you use an I-Pass or E-ZPass and get a discount, that adds up if you use it a lot. Whether you regularly or only occasionally commute to Chicago, of course you’re going to take the cheaper (i.e., free) routes. As for cross-country driving, a quick search on any map program can find a similar route across Northern Indiana on toll-free roads that’s only a few more miles and a negligible amount of time longer.

    There are times when a private road nearby isn’t a bad thing. Quite often when there’s a long traffic delay or construction, it might be worth the few bucks for a faster trip. And during one of the crippling blizzards we had last winter, when the public roads were covered in snow and all but shut down, the Toll Road was relatively cleared and made for a smooth ride into the city. But when trying to turn a profit, you can’t just rely on being the alternate choice. Traffic jams clear, construction doesn’t last forever, and it doesn’t snow all the time.

    Something to think about before the Illiana toll road construction starts up.

  • Left lane legislation lunacy

    We’ve all heard of the nanny state, passing laws for our protection whether we like it or not. Well, brace yourselves for its party animal cousin, the “bro state.” 

    You might not have heard the term (as far as I know, I just now made it up), so allow me to explain: Like so many quintessentially “bro” things (eating mountains of chicken wings, drinking contests, staying out all night partying during the workweek, racing your midsize sedan down suburban streets), the bro state appeals to the more primal instincts in every male. And also like those things, no matter how bad the idea is when you actually think about it, the bro state is going to do it anyway.

    The bro state has made its mark in Indiana, in the form of the state’s new left-lane law. Basically, the law stipulates that drivers in the left lane of interstate highways must change lanes to allow vehicles going faster than them pass, even if that vehicle is speeding. Failure to do so could warrant a $500 fine.

    So starting July 1, keep that in mind if you’re getting on I-65 to go downstate, or are heading east on I-80 or I-94 (it’s not a huge problem if you’re headed west, as left lanes become turn-only lanes once you cross into Illinois). Even if you’re driving the speed limit or the unwritten but acceptable few mph above it, and the guy coming up behind you is a reckless speed demon, it’s still your responsibility to get over and let them pass. In effect, Indiana has put speeders in the right.

    This is but a taste of the havoc the bro state could unleash on the Hoosier State. Soon, speed limits could become speed minimums, followed by the advent of speed cameras like our neighbor in Illinois, but instead used to punish those who drive too slowly. Then, not only will more environmentally friendly vehicles be banned, but the obnoxious practice of coal-rolling will be made mandatory…

    Okay, maybe my paranoid imagination is overreacting. But this is still a stupid law. If someone’s driving dangerously slow on the highway, I could see that warranting a ticket, but people observing the speed limit should not be punished and certainly not have to yield to reckless drivers who are breaking it.

    We’ve all come across cars going slow on the highway. And we’ve probably passed them, left them behind, and continued on our trips without a second thought. We don't need laws legislating etiquette on the highway or elsewhere that puts irresponsible actions like speeding in higher legal standing.

  • On infrastructure, mere repair is a low bar

    The issue of fixing the nation’s infrastructure (roads, highways, and bridges in need of repair) has steadily gained traction within in the past decade or so. If you haven’t heard much about it, well, the need to do so has hit home in our state in the form of the current problems with I-65.

    This problem isn’t going to go away, so sooner or later, something will have to be done about it. While we’re having this debate, however, we should consider another factor going forward.

    A recent study named Chicago and Northwest Indiana one of the ten worst regions for traffic congestion in the country. The list is made up of other major metropolitan centers nationwide. The study also concludes that congestion has only gotten worse over time.

    Just fixing our transportation infrastructure wouldn’t eliminate these traffic issues, which not only make for more time spent in the car for drivers, but also compound the amount of car exhaust spewing into the atmosphere due to vehicles running for longer. So instead of merely fixing it and keeping it the way it is, this is a prime opportunity to drastically remake our transportation infrastructure.

    How so? Well, turning public transit systems from mostly a city thing into a suburban thing would be a good start. High-speed rail lines between major metro centers is a good idea, too.

    But, this all won’t happen. Undertakings like these would take time, effort, and, most importantly, money, and when was the last time people were supportive of a tax, even if the thing it was paying for would arguably benefit them? Heck, the reason even necessary infrastructure repair has moved so slowly is because it would require raising the gas tax, which pays for it.

    My guess is that at some point, we’ll see a major infrastructure repair plan, when the problem is too big to ignore anymore.  Hopefully, that will happen before another tragedy like the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota, which seemingly jumpstarted this debate in 2007.

    But wouldn’t it be nice if people were more willing to work together toward long-term and ambitious but beneficial projects, instead of only going for what’s most convenient for them in the short run?

  • Ride-sharing can get uber-pricey

    You might have seen a litany of negative press directed at ride-sharer Uber—from trying to avoid regulations to issues of driver conduct and pay—but that hasn’t stopped the service and others like it from spreading. It’s now even popping up here in the Region.

    It’s kind of a wonder such services have caught on at all in cities with cheap mass transit and traditional taxi services on top of that. Suburban areas like Northwest Indiana, however, are another story entirely. Between the suburban sprawl, the sheer expanse of the area, and the lack of major public transportation, it would seem like a setting where ride-sharing could flourish.

    But could it replace driving as the regular commute for working people in Northwest Indiana? I had heard such (very possibly apocryphal) anecdotes of people who have ceased to own their own car and only use ride-sharing to get around. Skeptical, I did the math.

    The results are shocking. Not shocking in that I was proven wrong, but shocking as to what degree I was correct.

    For the sake of argument, let’s say gas costs $2.50 per gallon (it's actually slightly less at most Northwest Indiana stations last I checked), and a car has a 12-gallon tank. To fill up would cost $30. If the same car gets 20 miles per gallon, that would be 240 miles for $30.

    Now let’s say that a five-mile shared ride costs $10 (which is actually lower than the average ride of the same length from Uber). At that rate, 240 miles would cost $480.

    Yikes. Admittedly, I lowballed the numbers on gas mileage and tank size, but even if you increase them and factor in yearly car maintenance, driving yourself is still by far the cheaper option. And most ride-sharing services cost more than $10 a trip.

    This isn’t to say Uber, or Lyft, or others are bad things. Speaking as someone who’s never used it, it sounds no less convenient than hiring a traditional driving service.

    But then, who knows anyone who rides to work in a taxi every single day? Ride-sharing daily is probably just as much of a luxury for most people, and it certainly is no solution for a lack of public transit.

  • Self Driving Cars: Are we there yet?

    We are on the cusp of something special. A technological breakthrough that will really make us feel like we are living in the future. That breakthrough is self-driving cars and there are a number of companies vying for the top spot.

    Google has been developing the technology for self driving cars for over ten years now. Combine that with their extensive Google Maps’ data and one quickly realizes that self driving cars have been on Google's radar for a very long time. However, they are not without challengers. Apple and Uber have recently thrown their hats into the ring, but they have some catching up to do.

    What does all this mean for rural areas like Indiana though? Well, for one it hopefully means lower insurance rates for users of self-driving cars. What it also means is a more mobile society. Just imagine being able to send a kid off to an after school activity by just sending the GPS coordinates to the car. Then, being able to track the entire journey, knowing when your vehicle was going to be back safe at the homestead. The convenience of a self-driving car will definitely have people clamoring to get their hands on (or off) the wheels of one. I love the idea of having the flexibility of a car with the luxury of multitasking while riding to a destination.

    So how safe would you feel driving down I-90 or I-65  with a self-driving car riding beside you? Self-driving car manufacturers are going to have to answer that safety concern without leaving any doubt in consumers minds if they want to be successful. There will likely be self-driving car wrecks and they will be highly sensationalized when they occur. However, I think that in twenty years self-driving cars will hold a majority on the roads of America.

     

     

  • Smartphone Connectivity

    Our smartphones seem to be able to connect to almost everything these days. Some people point to a near future where we will have one device that interacts with everything from our car, house and even our waiter. However, how near is that future? How well do our smartphones currently interact with other devices in our lives and how widespread is the use of these features?

    For me, currently, one of the most important things that my smartphone interacts with is my car. In the past I had a simple auxiliary cord that would plug in and play all my music. In the past year I have upgraded to a Bluetooth connection between the two. However, the upgrade is very minimal. I can now answer calls, hang up calls and change songs through the car's interface instead of the phone's screen. The hands-free aspect of the interaction has become much more important recently with nearby cities and states beginning to introduce laws against distracted driving.

    The car industry has definitely taken notice to the importance of their products being able in interact with smartphones. Some have introduced special proprietary software and others have paired with Google and Apple to create operating systems.

    For the most ideal interaction between smartphones and cars, I think that car manufacturers need to take a step back and get out of the way of way of software that is already on smartphones. Instead of developing around Apple and Google, manufacturers should instead take advantage of what is already there. Both Siri (Apple) and Google Now both have become very effective at operating our smartphones purely on voice commands. It would seem like the obvious solution would be a Bluetooth connection to a driver side microphone and a button that activated Siri or Google Now.

    With the popularity of products like Apple TV and Google Chromecast, consumers demand has shown a strong preference towards ease of use between connected products. Both Apple TV and Chromecast are essentially receivers for the content on your smartphone or computer. I believe that car manufacturers and users would benefit from following this example. Cars should simply receive the operating system our smartphones have, not create a whole new one to interact with.

  • South Shore expansion is good for commuters

    Like the Gary Airport I’ve written about previously, an expansion of the South Shore commuter rail has been gestating for some time but has seen very little in the way of progress. The reason is the same one that causes so many public works projects to stall: money.

    In order to get federal money for the project (which the plan’s proposal estimates would cost up to $1 billion), more than a third of the total funding must be raised by the local communities through direct taxes. However, of the 20 local legislatures asked to provide funds, only 11 have pledged to do so.

    It’s not a huge surprise, as some of those communities wouldn’t even be directly served in the proposed new routes. Plus, the Region doesn’t really think much of public transit, so a new rail line is probably an afterthought in the minds of most residents.

    Still, would this expansion be a benefit for them?

    The proposal emphasizes the fact that expansion could make Northwest Indiana a destination and attract more businesses and people. A good intention, sure, but I’m not sure that will happen. It would seem smarter to focus on development of our communities first to give people a reason to come here before creating a new way to get here. Doing things the other way around would only provide more Indiana communities with easier access to Chicago. And with more people going in to Chicago to work and spend money, what would be the incentive for people in Illinois to come here?

    For the individual commuter, however, I think it’s worth the building and upkeep costs. Let’s face it: the main reason people use the South Shore is to go to Chicago. Even when factoring in both a roundtrip on the South Shore and travelling around the city on the L, taking the train is much cheaper than the gas money and parking fees it takes to drive there. Less driving also means less pollution, which is good.

    And people would certainly use the new lines. Even on just a regular workday, the parking lots of current South Shore stations are almost always saturated with the cars of commuters to city. More lines and stations would allow even more people to get to Chicago while reducing driving and saving them money.

  • The great train shutdown

    I’ve spoken frequently on this blog in support of expanding public transportation in Northwest Indiana. Well, a possibility has arisen that, come year’s end, we could learn the hard way how beneficial public transit can be to our wallets.

    Congress stipulated in 2008 that all trains must be outfitted with Positive Train Control (PTC), a system that can monitor and stop trains in case of emergency via GPS, by January 1, 2016. Outfitting the South Shore line with this system will cost around $120 million, nearly $80 million more than was budgeted for the refit.

    The NICTD and local officials are requesting an extension on the deadline. Should the request be denied, the South Shore would have to end its services.

    Just when its long-gestating expansion finally started moving forward, the rail might literally be stopped dead in its tracks.

    For those of us who travel to Chicago on occasion, this is an inconvenience. But for residents who rely on the line for frequent commutes to the city, it will really sting in the pocketbook.

    Let’s compare prices: 

    A one-way fare on the South Shore from Indiana and South Suburb stations to the downtown stops costs $8 or less, except for the last two stops way out in Hudson Lake or South Bend. For frequent commuters, there’s also 10-ride, 25-ride, or monthly tickets that, used daily, average out to slightly cheaper than a one-way ride. Also, it's free to park in most station lots.

    Parking in Chicago, on the other hand, will set you back at least $2 per hour. For a whole 8-hour workday, that comes to more than one round-trip at most of the South Shore’s rates. And that’s before taking into account the extra driving time or gas expended going to Chicago, versus Region residents’ fairly short drive to the nearest South Shore station.

    Apparently, the South Shore isn’t the only rail in the country who’s behind on implementing PTC, so it’s possible its shutdown isn’t a foregone conclusion. But whatever happens, it’s clear that a major transportation infrastructure like the South Shore saves riders money they’d otherwise spend on gas and parking.

    We should keep that in mind if and whenever the debate on public transportation within the Region comes up again.

  • Time has run out on putting off transportation spending

    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.

  • Transportation in northwest Indiana

     

    It is no secret that public transportation has been on the decline in northwest Indiana.  Reliance on cars has started to create a sprawl. “In the 1990s, the 10.9 percent growth in car and truck ownership was three times as high as the population growth of 2.9 percent” per the2012 Quality of Life Indicators Report. If passenger car usage continues to increase, congestion and road work costs will both begin to soar. But I won’t dwell much on the problems, instead let’s look at some potential solutions. Image taken from 2012 Indicators Report

     

    The first solution I will present has a focus on sustainability. Introduce a new line of busses that run on eithersolar electricityorcorn because God knows we have a substantial amount of both. While the initial investment in this solution would be high, we are obviously looking at long term implications here.

     

    Another solution to the problem could a national high speed rail system. If this were to happen, the route from New York City to Chicago would have to run through northwest Indiana, so why not add our support for some stops here. Who am I kidding though, the nationalhigh speed rail system is a pipe dream that will never happen, especially with all the cuts to public programs already happening, but one can dream can’t they?

     

    Another factor to consider in this discussion is the other role of transportation, the business side. In order to physically bring business to northwest Indiana the Gary-Chicago International Airport would almost certainly need to be upgraded. Currently a plan is in place to extend the runway from 7,000 to 8,900 feet. This will allow for larger commercial and passenger jets to utilize the conveniently located third airport of Chicago

     

    Finally, I will present to you a solution that has less to do with busses and more to do with passenger cars. What if we cut the bus system completely and focused our efforts on a car sharing service likeSidecar. Basically, Sidecar is a service that allows anyone to become a part-time taxi driver in their own car. I know it doesn’t sound glamorous but it could be a viable solution with all the potential passenger cars in the area. Just think of it as turning your everyday routes to work into a way to turn a profit and reduce road traffic, and isn’t that really the end goal of this whole situation?


    So what will it be Indiana? Planning for the future by investing in the bus of tomorrow that will continue to be sustainable into the distant future. Chasing a pipedream that will bring high speed rail transportation to northwest Indiana. Or settle for a basic solution that has a relatively low cost and allows for Indiana residents to make some money on the side. The solution seems obvious. There is no one solution, it will most likely be a combination of the solutions above with some that haven’t been mentioned in this article. But whatever the solution, the time to act is now.

  • We need a better public transit system

    By many accounts, Americans are driving much less often than they have at times in the past. You wouldn’t know it if you live in Northwest Indiana, though, because frankly, with few exceptions, there is little alternative to cars for navigating the suburban communities that make up The Region. The South Shore line can get you to Chicago much cheaper than driving there and parking in the city, and also take you from one town to the next. But unless you’re final destination is Chicago, you won’t be getting around much without a set of wheels.

    The opportunity to drive much less would seem very attractive to Region residents financially. It’s expensive to fill up a car. Even a regular midsize model could set you back around sixty bucks at the pump.

    One possible way to reduce driving is using a ride-for-hire organization. There’s not a strong taxi service infrastructure in the Region, but online apps like Lyft or Uber have changed the hired ride game. With either service, it’s easy to find a driver anyplace, and all through an app on your phone. But they cost as much as a standard cab fare, sometimes more.

    A better, more complete solution would be a public transit system. A great model for this would be the Valparaiso V-Line. It’s a thorough system, with stops near every major business center, school, government office, the South Shore station and Valparaiso University, as well as within walking distance of residential areas. A fare is only a dollar each time, or $30 for a month, less than filling up the car every month.

    The only question is: will people would use it? While a V-Line-like transportation system could save them money, using such a system would mean residents would have to conform to its schedule. Driving themselves, they can be on their own schedule, and do their routine at their convenience.

    I attended Valpo University for a year, and while living on campus, I used the V-line for going to the store or catching a movie at the theater. It was free for students, so lots of them used it. So did many Valpo residents. It was relatively new at the time (2008-09), but it ran smoothly and conveniently.

    Then again, the V-Line was much smaller then, and mostly centered on the University and main downtown area. Now it’s much bigger, with more routes and stops in every corner of the town. It’s probably safe to say that such an expansion wouldn’t have taken place if the service wasn’t a success.

  • Weighing wheel and gas taxes

    Tonight, Valparaiso’s City Council will vote on imposing a proposed wheel tax on vehicles registered in the town. Recently, a few other cities and towns in Northwest Indiana have added wheel taxes, and more are considering it.

    The impetus for this issue was the state’s road funding bill signed in March, a provision of which allowed cities with a population of 10,000 or more to impose such taxes on vehicles to fund road repair and maintenance. The state also pledged to match the amount raised by each town or city, setting aside money for such funding.

    Valpo’s proposed tax would be $25 per passenger vehicle and $40 per commercial vehicle, and would be collected during BMV registration. That’s an annual fee, by the way.

    Usually, roads are funded through gasoline taxes, but raising them at the state or federal level has been received…well, about as well as you’d expect a tax to be. A yearly wheel tax that costs, depending on the vehicle, a little more or a little less than a regular fill-up seems a lot more palatable than paying extra at the pump each time.

    So, what’s the downside? Well, less money raised in taxes, naturally, means less money for roads. Even with the state effectively doubling the funds, towns will still come up well short of what's needed to maintain their roads.

    A gas tax increase wouldn’t for sure bridge those budget gaps (a proposed federal increase is estimated to only put a small dent in our needs for federal highway repair). But there’s another component of gas taxes: getting people to use less of it. Specifically, to reduce our driving habits and use public transportation, thus lessening the need for road repair (and also, reduce pollution).

    But, that angle only works if there’s a public transit infrastructure for commuters to use. In the Region, there’s not much.

    So, wheel taxes are what we got. They're not perfect, but they can do some good. If your town doesn’t have one yet, expect to hear more about them from here on out.

     

  • What will 2016 bring The Region?

    government politics policy legislation

    Happy New Year!

    I did my “look back” piece for 2015 last week. Now that we’re in 2016, it’s time to look to the future.

    The predictions I made for the area going into last year were admittedly a little ambitious and starry-eyed (though they weren't entirely off). So this year, I’ll keep things a little more grounded.

    So, in 2016:

    • The Dunes pavilion liquor license controversywill drag on, but eventually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pavilion Partners LLC gets their wish and is permitted to serve alcohol in their proposed banquet center.
    • The expansion project of the South Shore line will continue, though still slowly and incrementally. The average commuter won’t notice much difference this year, except maybe some riders bringing bikes on the weekend.
    • Our local steel industry will continue to face uncertainty in its balance act with the global market. I don’t really have more to add to this vague generality, but I wouldn’t be optimistic for a turnaround.
    • Governor Mike Pence looks quite vulnerable in this year’s election, but unless he pulls another major blunder like the RFRA, the race will still be close. It all might come down to voter turnout.
    • Unless the Republican nominee to succeed our retiring Senator Dan Coats turns out to be another Richard Mourdock (in either the no-compromise hardliner or foot-in-mouth respect), the GOP will probably retain the seat.
    • Illinois will continue to be dysfunctional, sending more residents and businesses our way. Our casinos can probably rest easy, for now.
    • The Cubs will win the World Series. The celebration will be short-lived, however, as this event will bring upon the Rapture, the zombie apocalypse, a meteor, an alien invasion and everything Bill Murray talked about in Ghostbusters.*

    *I should note that whenever I make sports predictions, I turn out to be wrong way more often than right. Go Sox!