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South Shore Expansion project could bring big fortunes

The development of a second rail of the proposed South Shore expansion transit line is coming down the track with a lot of bells, whistles and promises. An estimated $456.2 million in local tax revenue in Lake and Porter counties alone over the next 20 years. The Regional Development Authority (RDA) would be over the Transit Development District (TDD), which would develop areas within a mile of train stations.

The West Lake Corridor Expansion is proposed as a southern branch that would serve west Lake County and run from Hammond to Dyer. The project could bring big financial rewards to underserved communities.

While that may be good news, some municipalities like Gary may end up not getting a piece of the revenue because they cannot afford their share of County Economic Development Funds to the Regional Development Fund. At its Tuesday meeting, some members of the Gary Common Council said they would support eliminating their contribution. Currently, Gary is required to pay 7.5 percent or $347,307.60 for 2017. With depleted property tax revenues and other financial challenges, Gary cannot afford to pay that amount. One lawyer said any attempts to reduce the share would pose legal problems.

For those cities who can afford to pay their share of the fund, questions remain about how the extra revenue will be distributed.

These concerns by many Lake County residents including Munster and Merrillville, caused the author of HB 1144, State Rep. Hal Slager, (R-Schererville) to add amendments to HB 1144, but those amendments were not made available in a timely fashion for the scheduled Senate Committee on Tax and Finance hearing in Indianapolis on Tuesday, March 28.

The Gary Common Council is considering eliminating funds for the South Shore expansion project.

A continued hearing has been scheduled for Thursday, March 30th to give the committee time to review the amendments. Testimony was heard on Tuesday from all parties interested in the proposed legislation. The biggest concerns surround the control of the redevelopment projects, transparency of the RDA, and a 30-year commitment to this plan.

The bill proposes that six million dollars from local districts and six million dollars from the state be dedicated to the TDD and the taxes received would be paid back into two funds: the state General Fund and the RDA fund. State Rep. Hal Slager states that the funds will be accounted for separately and will be used in development projects for those specific communities.

The amendments discussed Tuesday include the addition of a regional steering committee which would report back to the RDA. Participation in the funding and the transit development process for communities that are not full members of the RDA (the original concept), would have two options, associate members and cash paying members. This revision would benefit the communities that originally did not opt into RDA membership.

The Munster community, which would be added to the rail line through the West Corridor project, expressed concern about local tax funds that would go directly to the RDA instead of staying in the community, affecting funding dedicated to the schools which have already received cuts from the state. Slager said, “When it comes to the Munster community and the Gary community most of the area is already in a TIF. What may be perceived as taking money from the schools— that has already happened.”

According to the president of the South Shore, Michael Noland, the approval of these funds could also become leverage to match funding programs available on the federal level.

In the larger scheme of things, the supporters of HB 1144 believe this is the push needed to attract one of the largest classes of workers to the region, Millennials.

The Mayor of Michigan City, Ron Meer, supports HB 1144. “This can cut the commute from Michigan City to downtown Chicago from two hours to 67 minutes. You have to keep in account the marketability of the Chicago region. There are many people contemplating moving to the state of Indiana and becoming Hoosiers.” Mayor Meer goes on to say how supportive the community has been in seeing the benefits and collaboration across four counties: Lake, Porter, LaPorte, and St. Joseph.

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