NWI embraces transportation's three Rs: Roads, rails and runways

NWI Times

Northwest Indiana will see well over $1 billion in transportation infrastructure expansion and improvements in the next five years if plans for its roads, rails and bridges proceed as expected. Recent actions in Region cities and towns, as well as in Indianapolis and Washington, D.C., have the potential to bring a degree of change to the areas roads and rails not seen for decades.

The most visible would be expansion and modernization of commuter rail, with the South Shore Line's West Lake Corridor from Hammond to Dyer and its Double Track project from Gary to Michigan City. Another infrastructure landmark will be the new Cline Avenue bridge, under construction by a private consortium that will operate it as a toll bridge.

And state and local officials hope they have shored up road and bridge funding for the foreseeable future after creation of a 25-year road plan and the Community Crossing matching grant program for municipalities and counties.

Meanwhile, the Gary/Chicago International Airport has seen an increase in activity and significant new investment by its main tenants in light of its runway extension, and plans to open a customs this year.

South Shore Line: The existing South Shore Line would offer faster and safer service with the $312 million Double Track effort to add a second set of tracks between Gary and Michigan City. And commuter rail service will extend southward for the first time in its century-plus service in northern Indiana with the $665 million West Lake Corridor rail line through Hammond and Munster to Dyer's northern edge.

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky spurred action on the two projects and is point-person in the nation's capital as a veteran member of the House Committee on Appropriations. With local and state financial pledges in place, and as planning work continues on each of the rail projects, decision-making has moved to Washington, D.C., with the goal of achieving a federal commitment to fund half the projects' construction costs in the fiscal year 2019 budget.

Both of Indiana's U.S. senators are also in support.

"This is the key cornerstone project to grow our economy," Sen. Joe Donnelly said during a recent Region appearance.

"It's my number one advocacy priority," U.S. Sen. Todd Young said recently of the South Shore funding. "We want to get these grants approved, or some variant thereof."

Double Track is slated for completion in 2020, and West Lake in 2022, according to the South Shore's timeline.

South Shore Line President Michael Noland spoke recently about years' worth of little known projects that have made possible West Lake and Double Track, as well as other service and infrastructure upgrades planned for coming years.

The work has included basic infrastructure like tracks and ties, overhead wire and catenary, as well as mid-sized projects like bridge rehabilitations.

"Our bridges are nearly done," Noland said. "We're now embarking on a modernization of our (electrical) substations. We've done our signal systems ... we've made the right investments in the system to be at the point we can make improvements — real improvements — to our rail service."

Gary/Chicago International Airport: The Gary/Chicago International Airport's $174 million extension of its main runway, completed in 2015, has led to a jump in take-offs and landings and in fuel consumption, but the fact that growth in fuel consumption is outpacing growth in operations indicates planes are taking longer flights, something the longer runway helps make possible, airport officials say.

On the ground, the Gary Jet Center and B. Coleman Aviation, the airport's two fixed-base operators who service, fuel and store planes and provide hospitality to pilots and crews, each engaged in a major construction project last year. The Jet Center built a new terminal and administration building, adding about $3 million to the $10 million it has invested during the past decade, and Coleman built a $5 million hangar.

Construction work continues this spring on a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol facility expected to open this summer to accept incoming general aviation and cargo flights, something it cannot do now.

Senator Donnelly said companies that use a Chicago airport to clear customs are eager for Gary's facility to open.

"We're in a position and in a place where we're right next door to one of the biggest cities in the world, with an airport that's poised for amazing success," the Democratic senator said.

Roads and bridges: Gov. Eric Holcomb, in announcing the state's Next Level roads plan earlier this year, boasted that "Indiana has a fully funded asset management plan for every state-maintained road and bridge — something almost no other state can claim."

Indiana lawmakers created a 20-year funding package for infrastructure that included an increase in gas taxes and other fees during the 2017 session of the General Assembly. The state put out a road-and-bridge plan, part of Holcomb's "Next Level" agenda, last year that has state roads in the three counties of Northwest Indiana slated for $216 million in improvements the next five years.

And, the state's Community Crossings program is contributing about $16.4 million to local road projects in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties during the current fiscal year.

State Rep. Ed Soliday, chairman of the Roads and Transportation Committee in the Indiana House of Representatives, said work will be prioritized using technical standards developed by engineers and economists.

"They're creating a system to allocate projects based on congestion, safety and economic contribution," Soliday said at a recent Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission meeting.

The Cline Avenue Bridge project has also begun, with plans calling for a $140 million toll bridge to open next year. East Chicago recently approved construction of a temporary building where massive concrete castings will be made for construction of the bridge. The bridge is expected to open in late 2019.

When the state legislature passed its 25-year funding plan for roads and bridges last year, Northwest Indiana was nearing completion of the Restore 94 project to rehabilitate Interstate 94, and had already begun the Interstate 65 widening project that's continuing this year.

Those projects, priced in the tens of millions of dollars, will be followed with a variety of smaller ones on the Next Level list. The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission recently added 136 maintenance projects to its four-year Transportation Improvement Program, ranging from pipe-lining to drainage improvements to basic pavement rehabilitation. They were described as "the tip of the iceberg" by a NIRPC official.

Paying for it: The state's expanded road plans are to be funded through an increase in the gas tax and other vehicle-related fees. The tax-and-fee approach ratified in last year's legislation continued a Republican push in recent years toward user-based financing, over the objection of many Democrats who argued that those funding mechanisms are regressive in their impact on low-income drivers and unnecessary financially in that the state carries a $2 billion "rainy day" fund.

Meanwhile, policymakers across the country are eyeing the future of gas-tax-financed road maintenance with trepidation. On a national level, the tax's purchasing power is eroded by inflation, and everywhere, increasing fuel mileage has cut into gas-tax revenue. The rise of battery-powered automobiles will reduce it even more, perhaps one day exhausting it.

Indiana's recently raised gas tax is now indexed to inflation, and suggestions for a federal gas-tax increase and indexing have gained some support. But so has a focus on a new approach to the "user fee."

The Indiana Department of Transportation has begun studying the possibility of tolling interstate highways. The latter's inclusion in last year's state transportation bill was aimed in part at finding a way to collect money from out-of-state motorists — particularly freight-hauling semis so familiar to Northwest Indiana drivers.