DC trip keeps South Shore projects in federal spotlight

NWI Times

The leader of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority said a recent trip to Washington, D.C., to promote the South Shore Line's expansion projects generated positive reactions regarding state and local commitments to the projects' financing and to promotion of private development.

"We were able to go in and say we're 100 percent funded from a state and local perspective," RDA President and CEO Bill Hanna said.

And legislation signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb at the conclusion of this year's General Assembly created the opportunity for establishment of transit development districts around train stations, with future growth in income and property tax revenue allocated to promoting growth in them.

"I got a lot of raised eyebrows in Washington about that, in a very positive way," Hanna said.

Hanna said the TDDs will allow the RDA to absorb some of the risks of private development, allowing both for more desirable projects and to encourage investment across the South Shore communities "to make sure the rising tide lifts all boats."

Region officials hope the prospect of significant private investment will encourage federal officials to favor the projects.

"We were able to say, we have an opportunity to partner with you, just like we did with the General Assembly," Hanna said.

'Elevating the discussion'

The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District and RDA hope to win grants that would pay half the costs of the $665 million West Lake Corridor and $312 million Double Track projects.

Hanna said the meetings — with officials from the Office of Management and Budget, Federal Transit Administration and Vice President Mike Pence's office, among others — were geared toward "elevating the discussion" regarding the rail projects. The goal is to get the necessary federal grants in the fiscal 2019 budget cycle.

"The way the budget process works, in order to get in fiscal '19, we have to be in the budget discussions now," Hanna said.

Funding recommendations for the Department of Transportation's competitive New Starts and Core Capacity grants are made early in the budget development process. February is the key month, Hanna said.

And with uncertainty brought by the Trump administration's proposal to phase out the transit grant programs, and considering the general complexity of federal budget writing, "you can see how easily something can get lost in the process there," Hanna said.

The projects were presented to federal officials as an opportunity to achieve four goals: population growth, urban renewal, talent attraction and a rebuilding of middle class wealth.

"We have to be very vigilant about keeping this message out there, speaking to the right folks at the right time about what's different about this," Hanna said.

'Transforming our economy'

Before a 2019 budget starts its way through Congress, members must finish work on the fiscal 2018 budget. U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, a member of the Committee on Appropriations in the House of Representatives, said the House has sent its 2018 appropriations bills to the Senate. Once that chamber completes its versions, House and Senate appropriators will meet in conference to finalize the 2018 appropriations.

"I will continue to do everything possible to ensure that the Capital Investment Grants program, which supports these South Shore Rail Line projects, receives a robust final funding level for fiscal year 2018,” Visclosky said. “I remain optimistic that we will be successful in moving forward with these projects and transforming our regional economy."

The state's U.S. senators have offered bipartisan support for the projects.

Republican U.S. Sen. Todd Young convened a meeting of state and local leaders with Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao in August in support of the projects, where he referred to "the tremendous bipartisan support at the local level, at the state level and at the federal level that we Hoosiers have put forward in order to ensure we take this project all the way to completion."

U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., noted that the Senate subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development included $2.1 billion for the grants in its proposed 2018 budget, near the $2.3 billion authorized in the most recent long-term transportation bill.

"I have strongly supported double-tracking and development of the West Lake Corridor to ensure that Hoosiers have safe and efficient transportation options, which in turn will help drive economic growth in the Region," Donnelly said.