The article below was submitted by Hammond resident Darin Lee. Darin has no financial interest in the West Lake Extension of the South Shore Line. If you would like to submit an article, letter or thought for publication on nwigazette.com please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
May 23, 2017-Is it just a train?
I am going to quite intentionally ignore the direct personal impact this train will have on individuals as well as the impact on life quality (either positive or negative) in that area directly surrounding the train. I am ignoring these issues, NOT because they do not matter, but because they are not mine to speak on. I will allow others to do that.
Speaking broadly, the first issue many have with the train is as much the process as it is about the train itself. We are experiencing what my father would have called “milk and cookie politics”. We are given the milk and given the cookies and told that this is it, it is all milk and cookies. The milk is cold, the cookies are warm, just sit and enjoy. But is that all there is to it?
The Times has now printed a splattering of editorials referring to detractors of the proposed Westlake project as a people suffering variety of intellectual maladies. Detractors have been called radicals, social media trolls, and a handful of other terms to discredit. I am aware that this is how milk and cookie politics work. When engaged in this sort of discourse the last thing one wants is for people to realize that there may be more to the meal.
Who washes the milk glass?
Who cleans the plate of its crumbs?
Who scrubs the cookie sheet?
You see these sorts of things are NEVER just milk and cookies.
1) There is not one, not a single example, anywhere in this country, where in a commuter rail or other mass transit system does not end being supported by the tax payer on an ever-increasing scale. They are, everywhere they are in use, a tax burden. A burden that, with each passing year, increases. The cost of operation and maintenance goes up every year and those costs must be paid. Most mass transit commuter systems, of which we have local examples, end being a noticeable factor in local tax structure.
This train, regardless of promised developments and tax income developed, will cost you. It will be an ever-increasing tax burden we must pay – forever. A tax burden that will one day outpace the promised benefit.
I am not saying that this is not reason to have a train, just asking we keep that in mind.
2) The lauded benefits of this train do not add up in my head. They do not add up for many. I have heard a laundry list of benefits this train will provide. Everything from WJOB’s repeated mention of high paying construction jobs to the bloated estimates of taxable development and tax dollars. What I have not heard is any real answers to many of the deeper concerns.
First I want to dispense with the ridiculous notion that “high paying construction jobs” are the be all to end all argument in support of this train. I have worked construction my entire adult life. There is one truth in construction. No job last forever. Construction jobs provided during the construction of this train are, at best, short term thinking. While offered as though these high paying construction jobs are some sort of visionary insight into the hidden benefits of this train, those jobs are transitory and not guaranteed to benefit local citizens in any way.
While possible that the construction of this train will be managed, and staffed, entirely by local “Region” companies and workers, it is equally possible that it will not be. What happens when the development and construction firms are from out of state? What happens to all of the high paying construction jobs that are filled with workers from out of state? Illinois is the immediate possibility. Having worked on variety of construction sites all over the region, I can tell you, when it comes to these sort of large scale projects, I have worked with people from as far away as Tennessee and Virginia. I am not saying that this WILL be the case. I am saying that when we are promised “high paying (all be it transient) construction jobs” – these are the questions we as responsible citizens must ask.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Gazette recently published a report after attending a NICTD meeting. Track repair contracts all went to out of state contractors. While RDA Promises Jobs from West Lake Expansion, NICTD Hires Florida Firm for Track Repair
3) The schools and tax income.
The benefits to the schools and examples given of the tax income from Westlake project. They are pushed to us in gross. They are the GROSS tax income not the net. We realize that, correct? I do not remember off the top of my head the exact numbers of millions of tax dollar income that supposedly will be developed by the Westlake project. I do know that this income is only half the story. I do know that not even one of those numbers mentions or represents the increase demand and cost for public services.
I will use the schools as an example.
It is being said that this train will bring in XXX amount of tax income and thus will benefit the schools. The number are presented in the manner that all will remain as it is, and this tax income will be some sort of surplus. It will not be. There will be no surplus.
(These are the same exact promises made with literally hundreds of other government projects – the Metra extension, which I will discuss in a moment, the toll way and so forth. NOT ONCE have those number proven out in the real world. The toll way was going to be free after it was paid for remember.)
What is not being talked about is this: When we draw all these new people and create development from which we are going to derive all this new tax money – both these things come with TAX COST. What is not mentioned (regarding my example on the schools) is that new families means new children – new children who need to be educated. Educated in a system that currently struggles to well educate the children it currently has. Classrooms are FULL all across the Region. The student to teacher ratio is deplorable in many schools. So where do we educate new students?
For all the talk of this shower of tax dollars, they are INTENTIONALLY not mentioning (and hoping no one notices) that with the planned population density increase there are also cost density increases. Who pays for the new schools to house these new students? Who pays for the new buses to cover new routes? Who pays to educate all these new students?
THESE are things they are leaving out of their discussion in this plan. The ancillary cost incurred by said development.
The list is LONG
Increased Police services.
Increased Fire services.
Increase garbage services.
Increased parkway, park, common area, maintenance services.
Increases need for school services.
All of this stuff needs to be paid for.
While I agree that economies of scale promise that the increases in the demand for services and the associated costs are not directly proportionate on a per person scale, there will still be increase.
Increase we will pay for and not offset by the development surrounding this train.
There is not a single example anywhere in this country where in these services are not a burden on the public pocketbook. Government does NOTHING that WE do not pay for. That is a fact. The question is whether or not what government does will provide enough public benefit to offset that associated costs…and at present…trapped in this milk and cookie discourse…do we know what those costs will be? Do we know if they have even considered them? Do we know the real impact of these ancillary costs?
We are making a decision on something that will be with us and our children and their children – shouldn’t we have a full and frank discussion?
3) My last comment
I worked all over the South Suburbs most of my adult life. When the Metra improvements and extension came to be, the conversation was nearly exactly the same. They touted all the benefits, none of the ancillary costs —they gambled (just as this train is a gamble) and many local communities LOST.
The current funding discussion is about the train itself – NOT about the associated developments. The funding for those two things are separate – and that is something no one is talking about. Future development surrounding these train are an unknown.
So what happens if the interest in that development does not come to pass? There are literally hundreds of variables which could possibly derail the promised private development surrounding this train. What happens if we do not get all that is promised?
(as a side note: if the train and access to it drives development and is such a great way to salvage of faltering future – then why is North Hammond not the Jewel of our area? Why is there not development all around the current train system? The train and the potential has been there for decades. There are a hundred answers why, one of which is this: Trains do not provide private development incentive for existing neighborhoods. Never have and never will.)
During the Metra expansion and improvement, Villages like Markham, East Hazel Crest, Park Forest, Homewood and others were made the same promises of development – much of which never happened. The Metra improvement were touted as having the ability to rebuild the south suburbs —and it did – rebuild and few suburbs – Frankfort, Monee, Beecher, they all saw growth. Existing, heavily developed, older suburbs got the shaft. The interest in development was not there. Be it location (location, location, location as the real estate people say), prohibitive costs, whatever the reasons; much of the sought-after developments never came to pass.
I am not saying that the Westlake Extension will also not provide the promised development. I am saying we MUST at least ask what happens IF it does not. In the current milk and cookie discourse we are being promised many associated developments from apartments and condos to restaurants and offices as well as all the taxes derived from them. These are promises made on potentials, not on facts. These are promises made on “if we build it, they will come” thinking…but…the powers that be do not truthfully have any control on the future decisions of developers and investors.
If we build it, they MAY come is a far more accurate statement…but what happens if they do not?
The Westlake project is not “just a train”. It is a project that will impact every aspect of our lives in ways both large and small for decades to come. It holds equal possibility to both positively and negatively impact our communities. The milk and cookie discourse we are currently locked in is NOT ENOUGH. As responsible citizens (or as radicals and social media trolls depending on who you ask) it is our responsibility to ask these questions. It is our responsibility to take the planners to task. We must know who is going to wash that milk glass, who is going to clean the plate, who is going to scour that cookie sheet. It is not enough to just take our milk and cookies and go home.