MICHIGAN CITY – When he heard that the state legislature was changing the makeup of the NICTD board, which oversees the South Shore Line, Mayor Ron Meer made a personal call to the governor's office.
"Michigan City is at the heart of the South Shore corridor, both the commuter line and the freight line. With the yards here and Double Tracking on the way, I felt it was important for the city to have a voice on the NICTD board," Meer said Wednesday. "I contacted the governor's office to make sure we were properly represented."
And though the mayor and governor are from different parties, Holcomb must have paid attention. In announcing the four members – one from each county served by the South Shore – of the new Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District board, he named Meer as La Porte County's representative.
The five-member board will also include Gary Mayor Karen Freeman Wilson, Porter County Commissioner Jeff Good, St. Joseph County Commissioner Andrew Kostielney, and will be chaired by Indiana Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe McGuiness.
Meer thinks a smaller board might be a good thing.
"In my experience, I have found that smaller boards and commissions are more effective and more able to respond effectively," he said. "This will give the four counties more immediate representation. There were concerns about Michigan City and La Porte County having proper representation, and I felt having the chief executive of Michigan City on the board was critical."
With the proposed Double Tracking and other projects getting closer to reality, it was "important for Michigan City to have a seat at the table," Meer said. "I can guarantee everyone I will represent Michigan City and La Porte County well. And that's critical with all the money involved."
NICTD is responsible for maintaining and improving the South Shore passenger service, which operates between Michiana Regional Airport in South Bend and Millennium Station in Chicago. Holcomb’s Next Level Agenda includes double tracking much of the line and extending rail service along the West Lake Corridor from Hammond to Dyer.
"Improved rail service has the ability to attract new residents to northwest Indiana and grow the area’s economy by connecting the region to the nation’s third-largest city," the governor said.
The new state budget, which he signed into law last month, doubles the state’s investment in the South Shore by dedicating $185 million more to those projects and adding another $20 million to a contingency fund.
Meer thinks the state's willingness to up its ante, as well as having Michigan City (two-thirds) and La Porte County (one-third) already fund their share of the federal match, will "give the federal government even more incentive to keep the projects moving forward."
The Double Tracking will add a second set of tracks to a large section of the South Shore, cutting commuting time to Chicago by nearly a third. Meer sees other benefits.
"I always felt that Michigan City never got our fair share of upgrades in the past, but this project will include a new state-of-the-art station downtown, and that will open new marketing opportunites, and make jobs in Chicago – and South Bend – more accessible to residents here."
He thinks such transit-oriented developments, including the Double Track and the West Lake Corridor, are the wave of the future, though he knows not all are on board.
"You will be able to ride a bike or walk to the station, and be in Chicago in less than an hour," he said, which is important to a younger generation that doesn't want to rely on cars.
"And it doesn't matter if it's done right," he said, "there will always be people questioning what is done. But we need to look at this from our sons' and daughters' perspectives. They have different priorities."
NICTD board meetings are generally held at 10:30 a.m. on the last Friday of odd-numbered months at the Administrative Office at Dune Park Station on U.S. 12 in Chesterton. However, the May 31 meeting was canceled.
Meer said he's been in contact with McGuiness, but no firm date has been set for that meeting, the first of the new board.
"This is a real honor for me to have the governor recognize the leadership here in Michigan City," Meer said. "With this move we have answered the board representation question for Michigan City and La Porte County. There is a lot of opportunity here in Northwest Indiana and it's exciting to be part of this and move forward."