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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.

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