South Shore project work focuses on finances

NWI Times

Leaders of the South Shore Line and Regional Development Authority, along with state budget and finance officials, are meeting with Federal Transit Administration senior staff in Washington this week to provide details on the unique state and local funding mechanisms set up to pay for the South Shore Line's West Lake Corridor and Double Track NWI projects.

Each project has a mix of funding sources backed by interlocal agreements and state statutes. And the financing plan includes a partnership between the RDA and Indiana Finance Authority that takes advantage of the state's strong credit.

"We're going to be speaking with them about the status of the design of our bonds, our financial plans and the advancements we've recently made in the General Assembly," RDA President and CEO Bill Hanna said, the latter including the link with the IFA.

He said the FTA has established a working group to coordinate with the South Shore and RDA on the projects, and has appointed oversight consultants, a move the state has also made, to monitor the projects.

"We have an excellent relationship with the FTA," Hanna said.

The South Shore is also focused on finalizing the environmental study for double-tracking. South Shore President Michael Noland told the railroad's board of trustees at its meeting last week that the environmental assessment should be finalized soon, in the form of a Finding of No Significant Impact by the FTA.

Once the environmental work is done and financial consultations are complete, the South Shore intends to ask the FTA to restart the project rating process that would lead to eligibility for federal grants.

"We're proceeding along with a target goal of going after fiscal year 2019 funding for the projects," Noland said.

That depends on the continued funding of the Capital Investment Grant program, which would provide the federal funding to cover half the project costs of the $665 million West Lake and $312 million double-tracking projects.

Work in the U.S. Congress is underway on the fiscal year 2019 budget, and the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved a proposed 2019 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development funding bill that includes $2.6 billion for the Capital Investment Grant program, an amount similar to the fiscal 2018 appropriation.

The administration of President Donald Trump has consistently recommended phasing the programs out, calling only for funding of projects already underway. But Congress has resisted that, and the Appropriations Committee report associated with its initial bill instructs the Department of Transportation to "continue to advance eligible projects into Project Development, Engineering, and Construction through the capital investment grant evaluation, rating, and approval process."

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary and a member of the Appropriations Committee, said he's thankful for the committee's action.

"By rejecting the President’s misguided request, we are demonstrating the strong Congressional intent to support transportation infrastructure investments that are essential to growing economies and drawing more individuals and businesses into our communities," he said. "I will continue to do everything possible to support the Capital Investment Grant program and our region’s applications to make transformational investments in the South Shore rail line.”

Hanna said the goal remains to present projects that can get funding when it's available.

"Our main goal right now is to make sure the ratings, in the eyes of the FTA on both projects, are as high as they can possibly be," he said