Chicago is the third largest city in the United States, and more than 10 million people live in the Chicagoland metropolitan area. Another 76 million people visit the area each year.
Chicago is an international hub for commerce, as well as a leader in industries like finance, manufacturing, technology and telecommunications. It boasts the second busiest airport in the world and has one of the largest, most diversified economies in the world.
For more than 100 years, our region has been closely connected to the metro area via key transportation connections like road (Interstate 80-90), air (four flights daily) and train (via the South Shore and Amtrak railroads). Our residents are frequent visitors and our businesses find it a critical market.
The ease of connecting has become an important driver to our local economy, especially as our region seeks to attract top talent. A study of communities north and west of Chicago show that those within a 90-minute train ride have seen record growth and new capital investment. The current ride to South Bend, though a convenient connection, exceeds two hours in duration.
Shorten the duration, and the region could reap benefits like those realized in the west suburbs. The goal is 90 minutes by 2020, and the pieces are falling in place to make that a reality.
The project has found broad and bipartisan support at the federal, state and local levels of government. When Gov. Eric Holcomb visited South Bend in March, he cited the need for the improvement to the electric commuter train. The Indiana General Assembly concurred and have included rail improvements in the biennial budget.
Partners in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties have followed suit, and soon the federal government will weigh in on their support. Officials in South Bend and St. Joseph County are working to put local support in place. Business and community leaders have also voiced their support. This is the top priority of the business community in the region.
Two projects are critical to meeting the 90-minute goal: construct a new 16-mile track between Gary and Michigan City to make sure two tracks run the full route between South Bend and Chicago; and relocate the station at the South Bend International Airport from the east side to the west side.
Simply put, shorter commute times means more people interested in living and working in the South Bend area.
Funding the project is complicated. Obviously, it will require an investment in the future. Over the past 100 years, the service has cost local communities very little. A finance plan utilizing local, state and federal dollars has been put in place.
The project to add track, improve a number of stations, and make the trains faster will cost an estimated $290 million. The Federal Transit Administration would fund $145 million through the Federal Capital Investment Grant program. The state budget will contribute $72.5 million; Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties will each contribute $18.125 million. St. Joseph County commissioners approved its portion Tuesday morning.
An additional $25 million is being sought by South Bend for the airport relocation portion.
In the battle to differentiate our area from our competitors, a project like this can be a game changer. Professionals are attracted to the opportunity to live here, work there and vice versa. Those who don’t want the commute are instead attracted to the arts, cultural and recreational opportunities available with this connection.
Some questions remain, especially related to the uncertainty of the route into the airport. A number of alternatives are being developed now. In the end, we hope the project moves forward as planned and becomes the economic catalyst we believe it can be.