BY KEITH BENMAN, Times of Northwest Indiana

A push to gain support and eventually funding for a South Shore extension and regional bus service in Northwest Indiana had its first public roll out Friday.

The Northwest Indiana Quality of Life Council, with broad support from real estate developers, social service agencies and others, adopted a resolution in favor of integrating rail and bus service into a comprehensive three-county system.

"What we really wanted to communicate this morning was the benefits of public transportation," said Quality of Life Council executive director Megan Haller after the meeting at Valparaiso University's Student Union building.

But many of the 100 participants also were anxious to talk about how to pay for a comprehensive rail and bus service. The South Shore extension alone carries a $1 billion price tag.

"There will be some hard choices to make and that's why community leaders need to support political leaders to institute the hard choices that will come about," said Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas.

The Northwest Indiana Forum, along with a private business development group, real estate developers, state legislators and others, have been talking for months about how to get more financial support for the South Shore extension.

With the next session of the General Assembly just four months away, South Shore funding is "being debated a lot," according to Forum Executive President and CEO Vince Galbiati.

The benefits and challenges of building integrated rail and bus systems was explained by speaker Jeffrey Boothe, director of the New Starts Working Group, which lobbies for better funding of new public transport in the United States.

Studies have shown a direct correlation between the proximity of mass transit and higher property values, Boothe said. In some areas of the country, developers are basically agreeing to tax themselves through TIF districts and other mechanisms to support mass transit.

"In the last five years, there has been a sea change in the development community where they are fighting to develop next to transit," Boothe said.

Bill Wellman, a vice president at Whiteco Industries, said his company "follows the commuter lines" in building hotels. In recent years it has built about two per year in the Washington, D.C., area near Metrorail stops. The company could do the same here if the South Shore is extended, Wellman said.

Kent McDaniel, executive director of the Indiana Transportation Association, pointed out that an earlier draft of Friday's resolution mentioned backing "tax support" for public transit.

Haller acknowledged that wording was dropped from the final resolution in order to focus Friday's meeting on the economic, social and environmental benefits of regional mass transit.

The Indiana Transportation Association has been working on increasing the small slice of state sales tax revenue the state doles out to bus companies and the South Shore railroad in Indiana.

But state representatives and others say local funds inevitably will be needed, even if federal funds can be secured to pay for half the South Shore cost.
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