Grant programs that would aid South Shore Line are expanded in federal budget bill

NWI Times

Region officials involved in the South Shore Line's expansion projects said the 2018 spending bill making its way through Congress would aid their cause by preserving and expanding the grant program that would help fund the projects.

The 2,232-page, $1.3 trillion appropriations bill includes $2.6 billion for the Capital Investment Grant programs the South Shore projects depend on. That total is more than 10 percent above the amount authorized in the most recent federal five-year FAST Act transportation plan, and more than double the recommendation of the Trump administration.

"Seeing Congress continue to support the CIG program is extremely important," South Shore President Michael Noland said. "Starting off with the fact that the FAST Act authorized $2.3 billion and this calls for $2.6 billion, that's a good thing."

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, issued a statement noting the increase over the administration's request and the bill's requirement that the Department of Transportation continue to move projects through the grant process.

"I am pleased that Congress has recognized the inherent value of the Capital Investment Grant program by increasing funding for this program by $1.4 billion over the president’s fiscal year 2018 budget request," Visclosky said. "Congress also included critical language directing the secretary of transportation to move projects through the program from initial application to construction."

The Department of Transportation had recommended just over $1 billion for the CIG program. The administration's intention was to fund projects that currently have a "full funding grant agreement," the last stage in the grant process, but not to fund any new ones. The proposal to phase-out the CIG program would have been "a difficult hurdle for those of us in this program to face," Noland said.

The South Shore is applying for a New Starts grant for the $665 million West Lake Corridor extension and a Core Capacity grant for the $312 million double-tracking project. The grants would pay half the cost of each. The CIG program also includes Small Starts grants for local projects of smaller scale.

The DOT plans to make final grant payments on four CIG projects this year, according to its 2018 funding report. That would leave 10 projects with full-funding grant agreements, and at least 20 more at various stages in the grant pipeline, including the South Shore's two. South Shore officials hope to be prepared to receive funding in fiscal year 2019.

"There are projects ahead of us in line," Noland said. "They're at a stage they're ready for a full funding grant agreement. If they don't get funded in 2018, that just makes the line all that much longer."

The omnibus spending bill would finalize the federal government's budget for fiscal year 2018, which began Oct. 1. The spending package was approved by the House of Representatives by a 256-167 vote midday Thursday and sent to the Senate, just ahead of a Friday deadline for passing a 2018 budget.