Chicago is the third-biggest city in the United States and more than ten million people live in the Chicagoland metropolitan area. Another seventy-six million people visit the area each year.
Chicago is an international hub for commerce, and is 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 one hundred years, our region has been closely connected to the metro area via key transportation connections like road (Interstate 80/900, 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 ninety-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. 90 minutes by 2020 is the goal, and the pieces have fallen in place to make that goal a reality.
The project has found broad and bipartisan support at the Federal, State and Local levels. 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 La Porte Counties have followed suit, and soon the federal government will weigh in on their support. Officials in South Bend and St. Joseph County have worked to put local support in place. Business and community leaders have also voiced their support, it is the top priority of the business community in the region.
Two projects are critical to meeting the ninety-minute goal; construct a new sixteen-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 one hundred years, the service has cost the 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, La Porte and St. Joseph Counties will each contribute $18.125 million.
Additional dollars are being secured 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 that don’t want the commute are instead attracted 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.
Jeff Rea is chief executive officer of the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce.