The South Shore Line's West Lake Corridor project passed a major milestone Friday when the Federal Transit Administration announced a project rating that moves it a step closer to receiving as much as $440 million in federal funding.
The FTA's medium-high rating was revealed in the Department of Transportation's annual report on the Capital Investment Grant program. The grant for West Lake would cover nearly half the construction cost of $764 million, and a similar proportion of early financing costs of $127 million.
"Today, our economic future has been brightened," said U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, who has made upgrade and expansion of the South Shore Line a priority. He credited other officials, including Gov. Eric Holcomb and U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., for their support.
"This action taken by the Federal Transit Administration is outstanding news for the Northwest Indiana economy and would not have happened without the steadfast support of Gov. Holcomb, Sen. Young and our federal representatives, our state representatives, Lake County and the 14 participating towns and cities, and the leadership of the RDA and NICTD," Visclosky said, referring to the Regional Development Authority and Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, operator of the South Shore.
Young echoed that sentiment.
“The news from the FTA today is a great step forward for the West Lake Corridor project," he said. "I'm grateful for the continued support of Congressman Visclosky, Governor Holcomb and numerous state and local officials. We will continue to work together to support the project and make this important investment a reality.”
Local officials who've worked on the project for years had been anticipating the rating all week.
"We are thrilled," South Shore President Michael Noland said of the rating. "It reflects a lot of hard work."
RDA President and CEO Bill Hanna called it a "historic benchmark to cross. Our project is right up there with some heavy-hitting applicants."
Noland said the people involved in the project "are in celebration mode."
In addition to elected officials, he thanked the staff at the FTA for the project's successful rating.
"They have been great," Noland said. "They've been with us every step of the way."
Hanna noted that a South Shore extension has been discussed for 30 years.
"Over the last several years, people have really come together," Hanna said.
NICTD also has asked the FTA to advance the project to the "engineering" phase of the grant process. "We should hear that news sometime in the next 45 to 60 days," Noland said. Engineering is the final phase before negotiation of a full-funding grant agreement.
Over the next year, NICTD intends to select a firm to design the project, commence real estate acquisition and utility relocation, and complete other necessary actions to achieve the full-funding grant agreement.
The federal funding would come in the form of a New Starts grant, one of several in the Capital Investment Grant program. The Trump administration, in a budget outline released last week, recommends $1.5 billion for the CIG program in fiscal year 2020, including $500 million for new projects.
That sum remains well below what Congress has appropriated in recent years. The belatedly approved fiscal year 2019 federal budget included about $2.6 billion for the CIG program, more than twice as much as the Trump administration had requested.
"As the appropriations process moves forward for fiscal year 2020," Visclosky said, "I will continue to support full funding for the Capital Investment Grant program. I will also continue to aggressively advocate for the same success for the Double Track project."
Double Track, which would improve the South Shore between Gary and Michigan City, is in the process of being transferred into the New Starts grant path from one of the other CIG grants.
If the West Lake Corridor project proceeds according to plan, NICTD hopes to award a construction contract in spring 2020, with the start of construction later that year.
The West Lake Corridor would run nine miles from Hammond to Dyer. It would include a new Gateway station and maintenance facility in Hammond, connecting it to the existing South Shore, a south Hammond station, a Munster station at Ridge Road and a Munster-Dyer station at Main Street.