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Mega-Metro Center may go beyond Chicago and Wisconsin

Last week's article focused on the growing dependence on transportation infrastructure between Illinois and Wisconsin. The combination of expanding infrastructure to connect new and existing developments was highlighted. Building a true Mega-Metro Center along the lake means having a great supporting infrastructure, but I was surprised at some of the feedback.

Long-time reader Larry Zielonka, a CPA, commented that the Chicago-Milwaukee connection “was going nowhere fast” and that Amtrack did not offer enough trains to be very viable. I have to agree with him and I really hope that the focus in Wisconsin is to maximize the existing infrastructure first before embarking on another rail project.

Just adding more trains to Amtrack would create a real regional transportation asset and be much easier to implement. It would also have an immediate impact because adding more trains would be a lot faster than building a light rail line between Milwaukee and Kenosha.

What some transportation planners don't understand is that commuters want to get to work and not make a lot of stops. This sounds so obvious, but some just don't seem to get it. No one is going to take a train that is an hour and a half commute if they can take another one that is only an hour. Limited schedules do not help, either.

And as far as taking a car versus taking a train, driving to Milwaukee from Chicago is the preferred approach versus taking the train. It is the same amount of time in non-rush hour and you have so much more flexibility taking a car versus making sure you “make the train.” With only two trains running a day, there is not much flexibility in matching up your schedule to the limited amount of departures and arrivals for the train.
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Indiana's rail plans

He also raised the question, “What about Indiana?” Well, what about it? My focus last week was strictly looking north into Wisconsin and really did not look at Indiana. In taking a look at the region to the southeast, he is right. Indiana is very important and there are a lot of people already making the commute into Illinois from Indiana, not only by car but by the South Shore Railroad.

There is a lot of movement in Indiana to expand the South Shore Railroad down to Lowell and Valparaiso. The cost estimates are around $1 billion. It would be a combination of funding to build this expansion, but this does not appear to be an obstacle to many towns that would be added to the rail expansion.

In fact, many of them are looking at adding both developments and parking improvements to maximize the additional infrastructure. Valparaiso is planning a 73-acre mixed-use complex that will add both residential units and stores. Munster is adding a 1,000-space multi-level parking facility. Cedar Lake is also looking at adding some new developments once the total expansion is approved.

All of this adds to the viability of the region as more people have access to downtown Chicago. All of the towns along the expansion believe it will be very good for the local economy to have this infrastructure improvement.

Another reader, Chuck Sherwood, also pointed to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. This regional authority is poised at doing many things to make NW Indiana part of the Mega-Metro Center and the board is populated by appointees of the Governor, Lake County and Porter County, East Chicago, Gary, and Hammond.

Another piece of the economic development puzzle is the Gary/Chicago International Airport. There are more scheduled flights being added to places like Las Vegas, Phoenix, Orlando, and St. Petersburg, Fla. Some believe that the added flights will be utilized by business travelers who are coming into the Chicago area because the airport is only 25 miles away from downtown Chicago.

What about bottlenecks?

All of the air and rail infrastructure expansion sounds very good, but the highway connections still leave much to be desired. Someone in Indiana should really look into this from a tourism standpoint.

Last weekend, we went on a tour with a car club that included going to Purdue University, a Frank Lloyd Wright house, and also the battlefield of Tippecanoe. In order to get to Lafayette, Ind., we had to go through the highway bottleneck at the Illinois-Indiana border to get to I-65, which goes south to Lafayette.

Even though they are working to make it better, it still wastes a lot of time. We drove over the border on Friday at about 3 p.m., and there was a huge back up as soon as you hit the border. I thought we would beat the rush hour, but we got caught up in a lot of traffic.

On Fridays, many Illinois people will be starting to go to their Michigan cottages or boats that are at various harbors in both Indiana and Michigan. I can just imagine it at rush hour every weekday, when many are trying to get to work or on Sunday afternoons, when many are coming back from their cottages and boats.

In the past, there have been many reports of long lines of cars and trucks waiting to get past the borders. From my own experiences, crossing the border has always been a hassle and a determinant in not going on many tourist trips into Indiana.

You would think that there would be more emphasis on trying to solve some of these highway problems, not just for commuters but also for tourists, boaters, and people going to their cottages - all of whom create a huge economic impact for these surrounding states.

Badger boast

In comparison, Wisconsin seems to have its act together when it comes to making sure highways are open for business and tourists. It also has the best information centers.

It seems like more people drive up to Wisconsin rather than off to Indiana and Michigan for weekend getaways. I have even known boaters changing their slips from Michigan to Wisconsin due to the differences in drive times to get to their destinations.

Maybe it's because people just want to get to their destination and be tourists, instead of sitting in traffic for hours as if they were going to work.

Coming back from Lafayette, Indiana on Sunday afternoon, I took a whole different route going straight west to Bloomington, Illinois but turning north before that on an Illinois state road. I did not want to take a chance in going through the bottleneck at the border. I could have hit a lot of traffic of many returning people from their cottages and boats or just a lot of trucks getting an early start. I did not want to take the chance based on past experiences.

Talking to everyday commuters as well as tourists, it appears as though some planners have designed and maintained infrastructure in a vacuum. You have to go out and actually utilize the infrastructure, whether it be a road or a railroad, in order to see if it fits the current needs. If it doesn't, you need to make the adjustments if you want to sustain economic viability.

CARLINI-ISM: Successful economic development is built on good infrastructure.

Copyright 2007 - James Carlini

Recent articles by James Carlini

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James Carlini is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, and is president of Carlini & Associates. He can be reached at james.carlini@sbcglobal.net or 773-370-1888. Check out his blog at http://www.carliniscomments.com.

This article previously appeared in MidwestBusiness.com, and was reprinted with its permission.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC.

WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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