Times of Northwest Indiana

It's been two years since the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority was formed, and commuter rail service to Lowell and Valparaiso still hasn't started.

That's to be expected. These things take time.

But even as the $1 billion plan to extend rail service slowly chugs forward, the time is now to start talking about the potential benefits.

The Northwest Indiana Quality of Life Council this month adopted a resolution in support of the commuter rail extension. Other groups should do likewise, cognizant of the hefty price yet also aware of the large benefits.

Jeff Boothe, a Washington-based consultant on passenger rail projects, spelled out for the Quality of Life Council the benefits of expanding South Shore service.

Buses and trains are both capable of transporting riders from Northwest Indiana to Chicago's Loop, but rail lines, though more expensive, offer some distinct benefits.

With commuter rail service, developers who want to build near the train stations have the benefit of knowing their investment is safe. Rail lines don't move, but bus routes can be changed easily.

And to gain the best support for the trains, transit-oriented development must occur. That puts commuters in housing close enough to walk to the train station if they choose. Already, some forward-thinking communities in Northwest Indiana are starting to play for this type of development near where the South Shore stations should be located.

Put the right infrastructure in place -- including bus routes to the train stations -- and more people in Northwest Indiana will have access to high-paying jobs in Chicago that will ease traffic congestion, bring more disposal income into the region, reduce the outer suburbs' contribution to greenhouse gases and generally improve the quality of life.

Extending South Shore service will come at a cost. No form of transportation is wholly subsidized by its users. Building that project will require some financial commitment from the region. But that issue can wait.

For now, it's time to build consensus on the need so when the local costs become apparent, the discussion of how to generate that money will be more civil and more focused.

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