INDIANAPOLIS — South Shore Line expansion supporters consider the five-month federal spending plan approved Wednesday by the U.S. House to be a win for their cause, even though the West Lake and double-tracking projects weren't yet eligible to be funded.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act, expected to be signed into law Friday, includes $2.5 billion in grants for transit system capital projects across the country, including $100 million to modernize the Red and Purple "L" lines in Chicago and $50 million for an Indianapolis bus rapid transit system.
Perhaps more importantly, the measure signals that the Republican-controlled Congress remains committed to promoting economic development through new and improved transit connections, despite Republican President Donald Trump's desire to slash federal transportation spending.
U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, said he's pleased his colleagues once again recognized the transit grant program "represents an economic investment in communities across the nation.
"Funding for this program is testament to the fact that it has the ability to fundamentally transform the economy of Northwest Indiana," Visclosky said.
U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., agreed. He said funding the nation's transportation needs is vital to the economy.
"State and local leaders have committed fully to the South Shore project, and I will continue to work with the administration and congressional appropriators to ensure that the federal government follows through on prior promises to the people of Northwest Indiana," Young said.
That's good news for the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, which is planning in August to submit its federal funding application for the approximately $615 million West Lake expansion of the South Shore Line between Hammond and Dyer, and the $300 million project to double-track the existing commuter rail line between Gary and Michigan City.
The request for money to cover half the cost of each project is slated to be reviewed by federal officials next February.RDA CEO Bill Hanna is hoping the needed funds then will be appropriated by Congress in the 2019 federal spending legislation that must be adopted by Oct. 1, 2018.
"It all looks very positive for us," Hanna said. "We feel that we're positioned pretty well."
He said the new short-term spending measure "clears the pipeline" by sending out $2.5 billion to projects that have been waiting for federal funds, sometimes for years.
"The more of these projects that move forward, the shorter the list is when it comes to us," Hanna said. "That will put us in a more direct position by the time the 2019 budget is produced."
The South Shore projects also seemingly have a leg up over other transit proposals, because the state and local matching funds for both West Lake and double-tracking have been secured, thanks in part to the state budget enacted last month by Hoosier lawmakers.
"It just removes a gigantic question mark for the federal government when they look at priorities and funding," Hanna said.
In addition, Hanna believes the Region's rail expansions even could appeal to Trump, since a new state law tasking the RDA with producing residential and commercial development near South Shore Line stations makes the projects about more than just transit.
"It strongly sets our project out as a job-creation and economic-development program with a transit anchor," Hanna said. "It puts us in a great spot moving forward under a lot of different circumstances at the federal level."
Congressional support for South Shore expansion crosses party lines as Visclosky, a veteran Democrat, is working with U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Jimtown, in the House; and Young, a first-year Republican senator, is promoting the cause alongside U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind.
"They have a really unique composition going in the Indiana delegation, in addition to having the vice president (former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence) there on the administrative side," Hanna said. "I don't know that we've ever really been positioned like this as a state."