More than 12 percent of Lake County residents commute to work in Illinois, mostly to Chicago, where higher wages and better opportunities await in the forest of glistening skyscrapers by the lake.
Recently released data from Stats Indiana, based on Indiana IT-40 returns for tax year 2015, found 35,752 Lake County residents go to neighboring Illinois for work. Better pay is a major draw: the average wage in the Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights Metropolitan Division was $26.12 per hour last year, as compared to $20.54 in the Gary Metropolitan Division, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Highland resident Kimberly Kosmas has been commuting into Chicago for work since she started her career in 1983, taking the South Shore Line to her job as a project manager for a utility company.
"It was terribly difficult, but I learned to leave at 5:45 a.m. to make a train that would always run late," she said of riding the commuter train in the 1980s. "Back in those days, they were just retiring the old cars for the Japanese ones. They seemed to struggle then."
In 1997, she found a job in Hammond that was much closer but only paid a fraction of what she earned in the city.
"The commute was far less, but still didn't offset my loss of income," she said. "I took the opportunity to earn my bachelor's degree and left the company to earn $10K more in Chicago. I noticed the train was much better, including their on-time record."
Best of both worlds
Ashley Velchek, a business development associate for a nonprofit youth service agency, and her boyfriend, a building maintenance coordinator for a dental instrument manufacturing company, just bought a house in Dyer after living in Chicago for years.
"Generally speaking, splitting our time between Chicago and NWI is like having the best of both worlds," she said.
"Despite a much longer commute to the city, we chose to live in NWI for the affordability of a single-family home and lifestyle. I, personally, do not want to give up the city life completely, including friends, restaurants and culture."
They like their jobs, presume salaries are higher in the city and believe there are a larger array of job prospects there, Velchek said.
"I believe that my opinion may change once we start a family, and would prefer to be at home more rather than deal with the long commute," she said. "Also, once we have children, schools are ranked higher in NWI than in Chicago. I would recommend it for those who are ready to settle down a bit and for the 'better bang for your buck' argument."
Stats Indiana found most of Lake County's 293,762 workers either stay in Lake County or commute across the state line to Illinois. About 6,550 Lake County residents work in neighboring Porter County, while 946 schlep to LaPorte County and 360 endure a more-than-two-hour-each-way drive down to Indianapolis.
Lake County, the second most populous county in the state after Marion County, also remains by far the biggest employment hub in Northwest Indiana, according to Stats Indiana. It attracts 18,981 workers from Porter County, 15,358 from Illinois, 2,388 from Jasper County and 1,762 from LaPorte County. LaPorte County, in turn, sends 3,768 workers west to Porter County, 2,195 workers east to St. Joseph County and about 749 workers north to Michigan.
South Shore stations a selling point
Though Lake County remains the Region's employment center, it's also increasingly becoming a bedroom community, as young Chicagoans decamp to the suburbs and south suburban residents cross the state line, looking for somewhere that's still a reasonable commute into Chicago.
Flossmoor native Noah Amstadter, an editor at a book publisher, said when he took a job in Chicago in 2010, living in Illinois was not a consideration for him and his wife Jen, a Hobart native.
"The housing costs, limited square footage and parking costs associated with living in the city did not interest us," he said.
"And living in the suburbs on the Illinois side was not attractive, either — if you drive around Schererville you see a community that's growing, that new businesses are investing in. On the other side of the border where I grew up in Flossmoor, we saw a community fighting to survive, with foreclosures and taxes going up and businesses closing down."
While he liked the idea of walking to the Metra, he said it wasn't worth the risk of taking on a mortgage in an at-risk community.
"We focused our home search on west Lake County, specifically homes no more than a 20-minute drive from a South Shore station," he said. "Ultimately, we purchased a home in Schererville's Plum Creek subdivision."
He leaves the house at 7:15 a.m. every morning and typically walks into his office in Chicago's River North neighborhood at about 8:45 a.m.
"The train schedule is reliable. Other than extreme weather, the South Shore has proven reliable over the past six-plus years," Amstadter said. "I can get work done, listen to a podcast, read, or even sleep on the train. None of the stress of driving, on my car or on me. Since the South Shore added WiFi, it's been even better."
He appreciates not having to pay for parking at the train station, like Metra requires its riders to do. But he said he's been slowed down by freight trains and major construction projects, such as the replacement of the Nine Span Bridge on Indianapolis Boulevard. It's also currently not convenient for him to walk or bike to a South Shore Line station.
"Unlike suburban communities serviced by Metra, relatively few South Shore commuters walk to the station," he said. "I miss that option."
Porter County commutes, too
A fourth of Porter County's 113,348 workers leave the county for work, mainly to Lake County and Illinois. Nearly 5,000 Porter County residents commute to Illinois for work, while only about 1,000 Illinois residents work in Porter County. Some 3,768 LaPorte County residents work in Porter County, according to Stats Indiana.
Chesterton resident Lauren Rossi works downtown, just across the river from the Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue.
"I work in radio, so the job market is extremely limited for me in Northwest Indiana," she said. "I am the sole provider for my family as my husband is a stay-at-home dad, so I need to work where I can make enough for us."
She bought a house close to a South Shore Line station so she could easily get into the city. Their family decided to move from California back to the Region after they had their daughter, so they would be close to the grandparents.
"When we were looking for a home to purchase, the three biggest factors were safety of the neighborhood, quality of schools and proximity to the South Shore Line. We decided on Chesterton because it fit all of those factors, and we were able to get a home for a very reasonable price with low property taxes," Rossi said.
"We stayed with his parents in Munster during our home search, and I took the South Shore out of East Chicago daily. Even with moving more than 20 miles further east, my total commute only changed by about 10 minutes."
Rossi said she enjoys taking the South Shore Line into the city, even if there are delays or breakdowns.
"My employer completely understands the hassles of the train and has no problem if I am late due to the train," she said. "I just need to make up my hours sometime during the week. In the evening, I get into a book or catch up on my television shows or movies on Netflix. It has become my time to decompress."
Commute is reasonable
Chad True and his wife, who moved from the northern suburbs to Chesterton in 2014, drive into the city together on the Indiana Toll Road, and he takes the train home because of their schedules. He works in insurance in the Loop and his wife works at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park.
"We could have located anywhere on Interstate 294 and it would be an hour," he said. "We visit Michigan a lot, so we checked Chesterton out. The day care was affordable, and the commute isn't unreasonable."
True said he enjoys the affordability, low taxes, small-town feel and proximity to the Indiana Dunes State Park, so much that he's actively proselytizing for Northwest Indiana.
"One of the new executives at work came up from Atlanta, and I've interested him in looking at Chesterton and Valparaiso," he said. "We're recruiting."
Northwest Indiana leaders have been working to position the Region as more of a suburb of Chicago, given that wages are significantly higher there and that NWI's core base of manufacturing jobs has been eroding for decades. The South Shore Line double-track and expansion projects specifically are intended to attract more young families who would work in the Loop and live in Northwest Indiana.
Reduced travel time
Ned Jovanovich, who moved to Munster from Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood three years ago, said he believes there are too many empty seats on the train and ridership is declining too much for the expansion to work without exorbitant government subsidies. Jovanovich, who works in sales and marketing, takes the train into work three days a week, and said it's antiquated and could be faster.
He and his wife moved to Munster to start a family, and he was eager to escape Chicago's high taxes and housing costs.
"We pay 60 percent less in property taxes," he said. "We picked Munster because of the schools. It's comparable to Hinsdale, Lake Forest, any of the other Chicago suburbs."
Other riders were more excited by the train line's expansion southward and the double-tracking projects, which is expected to speed up service east of Gary because trains won't have to stop to let each other pass.
Amstadter said it would be convenient to have new stations in Munster and Dyer, which would be a 10-minute bike ride or five-minute drive from his house. Rossi said double-tracking should cut down on the travel time back home to Chesterton.
"With a 2-year-old at home, I treasure every moment I get with her," Rossi said, "so a reduction in travel time is something I truly look forward to."