Mayor McDermott calls for referendum on South Shore Rail expansion project

admin Mayor's Office, News

Residents of northwest Indiana continue to sit on the sidelines of one of the most expensive and important economic development decisions as our state legislators are being lobbied behind closed doors in Indianapolis. Our Congressman and others who would like to see a $600 million expansion of the South Shore line from Hammond into Dyer continue attempts to get our state legislators to commit your tax dollars to this unnecessary and expensive project. This rail line, an eight mile extension from Hammond to Dyer will cost $75 Million per mile. By many estimates it will be the most expensive commuter rail line expansion in the country.

Although many communities throughout northwest Indiana have pledged their portion of the newly created 1.5% county income tax to this project, several (Hammond included) are holding out. Quite frankly, after speaking with hundreds of Hammond residents and polling about this proposal, I can safely say that as a city we do not support this expansion proposal for $27 million of Hammond’s tax dollars. Most residents, myself included, feel there are far better ways to use $600 million of our county’s money than extending a single line, that already exists, eight additional miles.

In September of 2014, I called for Congressman Visclosky and others to support a voter referendum on the merits of this $600 million project. After all, why spend this sum of money on a project that the residents may not even support? How can we continue to push forward with such a massive project if we are not doing what the residents want us to do—or worse, not even knowing what they want us to do? How can we commit to spending such a large amount of money, without knowing the details of the project? Many important questions remain unanswered; for example, this expansion could bring additional freight lines through communities already burdened with heavy train traffic.

A referendum is a public question placed on a ballot by a unit of government, with the voters choosing one side or the other on the question. Most referendums involve the public’s input on construction projects for local units of government (for example, construction of new schools, new utility upgrades, new police stations, city halls, etc.), or for increased funding for school districts. The voters get to decider whether the proposed improvements or financial support are worth the increased taxes needed for the project. Historically, other important questions have been put to referendum by the legislature, such as allowing gaming in a community. These are all important questions that need the public’s input because it impacts each person’s taxes and are important issues for a school district or community.

Since calling for a referendum on the South Shore Extension, I haven’t heard a single word of support, from Congressman Visclosky or from Indianapolis. Instead, our legislature is in the midst of debating bills that would mandate money be taken from our communities and placed in a fund that would pay for this expansion without a word of input from you, the taxpayer. Our Congressman is supporting these bills because it achieves his goal of expanding the South Shore, which although may be his goal, is not most likely the shared goal of a majority of his constituents.

Communities across Indiana routinely hold referendums on projects much smaller than the $600 million South Shore extension we are considering. Two recent examples include the May 2013 School Town of Munster general fund referendum that only added $.1990 per $100 of assessed value. This totaled $21 million to help defray the costs of running their school system. Munster voters approved this referendum, and the increased monies are currently helping Munster schools operate at a level they couldn’t maintain without the added revenue. Recently, the Valparaiso School Board voted to hold a referendum on adding $.2042 per $100 assessed value above the property tax caps , to the ballot. Valparaiso voters will decide this May whether or not this $118 million in added costs will be approved or not.

The two school referendums and the proposed South Shore Extension have very little in common other than one important thing: the communities cannot afford the capital project without incurring additional debt. The total cost of the proposed South Shore Extension will be over $600 million– yet there will be no referendum gauging whether or not the residents of our area desire to increase their debt load so dramatically? Why wouldn’t Congressman Visclosky support my desire to request the legislature to mandate a referendum on this project? Let’s find out what the voters really want instead of force feeding this project down our collective throats.