Matt Mikus, Post-Tribune reporter. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 4, 2013 6:06AM
The Hoosier State Line has a vast potential for Northwest Indiana, but only if there’s a plan to improve the services.
Identifying and cooperating with Chicago, yet regulated and directed by Indianapolis, Northwest Indiana tries to balance between the two cities. Currently, the best way to get between the two is Interstate 65, but it always seems packed.
The lesser known option, the Amtrak passenger train connecting the two cities, is facing a funding deadline of Oct. 1. The Indiana Department of Transportation has until then to decide whether it’ll chip in at least $3 million annually to keep the line running.
When I started working for the Post-Tribune, I was assigned the Statehouse beat for the 2012 General Assembly. During the winter months, I split my time between Northwest Indiana and Indianapolis, covering the state legislature four days of the week, and working one day up north.
Over the 16 weeks of the general session, I clocked over 4,500 miles. I’m not complaining. It’s part of the job, but I wished that I didn’t have to be the only one driving and could find another way to pass the time.
At the end of the session, I heard there was a train traveling between Chicago and Indianapolis and the state legislature was trying to decide whether it would fund the Hoosier State train after the U.S. Congress required states to pay about 80 percent of operating costs for any passenger rail shorter than 750 miles.
My first reaction was the train offered endless possiblilites. I could catch up on reading or research and write articles during my weekly trek.
I could head to a Colts football game in the fall or spend a weekend with friends without worrying about cars and parking spaces.
The same opportunities would work at the other end of the line. Indianapolis residents would have easier access to Chicago and things such as international flights from O’Hare and cultural and entertainment options for a weekend getaway.
I looked up the Hoosier State Line timetable and reality slapped me hard across the face.
The only trip from Indianapolis to Chicago left at 6 a.m. The ride departing the other way left Chicago at 5:45 p.m. Central time.
One choice. Early out of Indy. Late coming back.
Never mind the fact the line takes five hours traveling between the two cities when driving takes only about 21/2 hours.
Granted, boardings and alightings continuously have increased along the Chicago-Indianapolis corridor. Over five years, the total boardings and alightings has grown from 55,377 to 73,327, a 32 percent growth. Smaller stations such as Dyer have seen growth of up to 60 percent, from 1,723 in 2007 to 2,439 in 2011.
If I were going to use the train, I would at least want faster service or more options on when I could leave.
That’s where the debate is boiling down to as the Indiana Department of Transportation is finishing up a report due early this month looking at the costs of either keeping service as is, expanding it, or dropping it.
INDOT estimates that to provide the service as is would cost nearly $80.08 in state subsidies.
If the state decides to continue, it should be with the caveat of an investment plan for faster service and more options for the customer.
There’s a suggestion to receive some money through cities serviced by the line, but Lafayette might be the only city besides Indianapolis that could contribute a significant amount.
Partnerships with larger venues, such as the Pacers and the Colts franchises, could help bring more sports fans to Indianapolis without increasing traffic. It could make the city more attractive for the Super Bowl bid in 2018.
There’s still time to get more out of the Hoosier State train, but the final stop is fast approaching.