BY KEITH BENMAN, Times of Northwest Indiana
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A Munster man has collected 501 signatures in support of extending the South Shore line to Lowell and Valparaiso in what he says is the start of a grass-roots campaign to get the extension under way.

Greg Bales, 22, a recent graduate of Indiana University, along with David Vlink, of Indianapolis, has founded Citizens for the Extension of the South Shore Line.

"We're hoping we represent the voters and not just business," Bales said Monday. "We represent about 500 right now."

The 51-mile extension of the South Shore to Lowell and Valparaiso will need grass-roots support, especially if a tax is needed to pay for it, Bales said. He added he would be glad to pay something to get to Chicago faster and improve the environment.

The extension has an estimated price tag of $1 billion. It has been talked about for more than a decade and an extensive feasibility study was completed in December 2000.

Another study funded by local communities and federal funds secured by U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., has been under way for more than a year.

Last week, the Northwest Indiana Quality of Life Council adopted a resolution supporting the extension. Other groups, such as the Northwest Indiana Forum, have been working on plans to help with the effort.

Bales' petition is available at www.CESSL.org and can be signed online. Also available there is a link to audio promos Bales has posted explaining the expansion.

In addition to the Web site, Bales has distributed about 700 flyers in support of the expansion at South Shore stops in Hammond, East Chicago, Gary and Portage.

Those who long have supported the South Shore expansion say Bales has contacted them and they heartily support the effort.

Visclosky is "very excited" by Bales' effort to build support for the extension, according to the congressman's spokesman, Justin Kitsch.

"Bales supports the extension for the same reasons as the congressman; it will create jobs, improve access to Chicago and improve the environment as well," Kitsch said.

Citizen involvement will be the key to getting the South Shore extension going and the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District is hoping Bales' movement will catch on, according to John Parsons, NICTD marketing and planning director.

Bales said he knows politicians will have to make "some hard choices" if the extension is to become reality. He said reaction to state Rep. Chet Dobis,' D-Merrillville, proposal for a "wheel tax" earlier this year proved that.

Bales said he has spent about $200 on the campaign already and will be looking for financial support of his cause in the future.
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