Hammond plan for South Shore extension OK'd

Post Tribune

The $600 million South Shore line extension from Hammond to Dyer won the approval Friday of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District board, clearing the way to begin working on federal approval and funding.

Called "Hammond Option 2," and suggested by Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott, NICTD will build the Gateway Station about two blocks west of the current Hammond station on Hohman Avenue, south of Gostlin Street in North Hammond.

Also included in the nine-mile extension will be a maintenance yard in North Hammond and additional stations in Hammond, Munster and Dyer, where there will be a overnight layover facility for train cars. NICTD expects begin building the new Gateway Station in 2020 if the project gets final federal funding and approval, officials said.

The nine-mile stretch will be an economic boon for the region, U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, said of one his highest profile projects.

"From the bottom of my heart, I say you are going to change the way three-quarters of a million people live their lives because of your good work," Visclosky said.

The cost of the new stations and train line will be about $600 million, but the return on the investment will be at least four times that, NICTD Director Mike Noland said. In his presentation, Noland said the new line will create 2,500 new jobs, attract 8,000 new residents and create $843 million in personal income over 30 years.

"In my opinion, it'll cost us way more money not to do this project," Noland said.

For McDermott, the district's decision to ensure the two lines meet in Hammond was critical.

"I couldn't see any way we would support (the West Lake line) if the lines didn't touch in Hammond," he said. "This is a huge

positive for Hammond. I would be committing malpractice as a mayor if I didn't get behind this."

The commuter train line will run parallel to the CSX freight train line, and it will add weekend service and 26 trains north-south a day to the South Shore's operations, which now runs east-west only from Chicago's Loop to South Bend.

The physical highlight of the new route may be the Gateway station. Noland said it will feature two platforms - one above another - and be a junction for passengers to transfer from the east-west line to the new north-south line.

An artist's rendering of the station featured tree-lined streets with a roundabout, new residential developments and businesses developing around the station.

Last year, the South Shore served about 3.6 million riders. By 2040, the new line could add another 2.1 million riders, according to NICTD estimates.

Noland said his staff recommended the Hammond Option 2 over three alternatives because of financial and political support from Hammond and Munster and the ability for passengers to travel in all directions from the new Hammond Gateway station.

Getting the blessings of McDermott and the Hammond City Council -- and a $900,000 investment from the city's local option income tax proceeds -- was important for the project and for major economic development in the city, but it was not the driving point behind the selection, Noland said.

"Regardless of whether (Hammond was) putting money in it or not, this was the option," Noland said. "The fact they're putting in their (investment) money, and the mayor and the city council see this as a tremendous opportunity for about $300 million worth of investment in North Hammond and the opportunity to revitalize a neighborhood and the opportunity to bring transit-oriented development and everything it's going to bring, that's tremendous for us, but the operational advantages for us of the Gateway station sold us."

NICTD has scheduled three public hearings next month, and the public can comment on the district's selection through next February. NICTD must finalize its environmental impact statement and submit an application to the Federal Transit Administration by next August.

The draft environmental impact statement prepared and accepted by NICTD is available online at www.Nictdwestlake.com. The public can comment on the plan online, through an automated comment line at 219-250-2920.