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.

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