South Shore projects approach turning point

NWI Times

The end of summer will mark a turning point for the two South Shore Line projects that have been years-long goals of the Northwest Indiana Commuter Transportation District. Intensified planning over the last several years has brought the West Lake Corridor and Double Track NWI projects to the verge of applications to the federal government for project ratings — the score that could lead to grants covering half the estimated $615 million cost of West Lake and $290 million cost of Double Track.

The projects — technically separate, but complementary in their common goals and linked in their timing — have a variety of still-moving parts that have generated a number of questions over the course of the last year.

Will this get done in my lifetime ... or ever?

A common paradox of public projects is that the longer they're talked about, the less likely it is people think they'll become reality. So after more than a quarter century's percolating in regional planning publications, the West Lake extension became a prime example, in many minds, of an "it'll never happen" project.

But both projects are now in the "project development" phase of the federal government's evaluation process, on track for advancement to the "engineering" phase and then consideration for the federal Capital Improvement Grant program later this year. Meanwhile, work on environmental studies for both projects will continue into fall, with the idea of finalizing them late this year.

Why do this when there are so many other needs?

A confluence of factors — in addition to the railroad's own goals of expansion and modernization — contributed to the projects' advancing to their current point:

  • U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky identified access to Chicago jobs as key to long-term growth in Northwest Indiana;
  • Visclosky and some state lawmakers decided region-wide efforts for that, and other goals like lakefront restoration, were required;
  • and tax revenue from casinos and local income taxes offered funding opportunities.

The state created the Regional Development Authority in 2006 and funded it with state money, casino tax revenue and Porter County income taxes. Its goals included public transportation, but also runway expansion at the Gary airport, lakeshore redevelopment and attraction of private business. With the RDA's reauthorization in 2015, transit became its primary goal, with the state committing $180 million over 30 years to the West Lake Corridor project.

The state commitment was coupled with a local push by U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky to secure local commitments in Lake County of economic development income taxes for West Lake. The state and local money would leverage federal grant money to fund the rail projects.

The Double Track project is both a modernization of the railroad — minimizing delays and safety issues associated with the current two-way traffic on a single track, and moving tracks out of the center of the street in Michigan City — and a speed issue. The prospect of an hour's ride from Michigan City to Chicago is being banked on as a lure for new residents, and riders.

The belief in regional projects has only grown in the state since then, as exemplified by the Regional Cities program, which committed $42 million to three regions around the state in 2015. And the idea that Northwest Indiana's economy needs a jolt that only its place in the Chicago metropolitan area can bring has taken firmer root.

"At the end of the day, this is about getting new money into Northwest Indiana," RDA President and CEO Bill Hanna said recently.

Are the most recent plans the final plans?

With the recent changes to the West Lake project, most notably the move of its layover yard to Hammond and the move of the Munster Ridge Road station north of Ridge, the project's blueprint is essentially set, according to railroad officials. Double Track could see some design adjustments at Miller and Michigan City, but it too is largely settled.

That doesn't mean there aren't decisions to be made. A particular issue for residents near proposed stations is parking. Munster and Dyer residents in particular questioned town and railroad officials about neighborhood parking.

The most common answer was to create permits for street parking that would be distributed to residents. Anyone without a permit would be ticketed. Some communities sell permits to commuters, but that idea was not met kindly by residents at recent forums.

When and how will properties be acquired?

Property acquisitions will be done under guidelines of the federal Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Polices Act of 1970. Detailed maps in the draft Environmental Impact Statement for West Lake, and in planning maps for Double Track NWI show the footprints of the projects.

NICTD can't begin negotiations with property owners until the environmental studies are done later this year. It intends to begin purchasing property early next year.

"We have heard from a lot of people," Noland said in regard to impacted property owners. "I would be surprised that there's any significant amount of folks who don't know."

Will the plans work as promised?

Some critics have expressed skepticism about the South Shore's goal of a ride from Michigan City to Chicago of an hour and from South Bend of 90 minutes. Noland said multiple computer simulations have shown it can be done, and Metra has capacity for it on the 14.5 miles of its tracks the South Shore uses. Beyond the simulations, the success of the railroad's Sunrise Express, limited-stop trains begun two years ago, has given railroad confidence.

"We realized that is an achievable goal," Noland said of quicker trips.

When the state reauthorized the RDA in 2015, lawmakers required the organization to create a comprehensive plan that showed the return the state could expect on the major investments being contemplated.

That document, includes a variety of projections, some updated since its September 2016 publication. As things currently stand, the RDA and NICTD are projecting an increase in weekday ridership of the South Shore from about 11,500 to more than 24,000 by 2037.

That includes the expected "cannibalization" of West Lake from the existing line — the riders who go to East Chicago now, say, who will instead go to a West Lake station in the future.

Railroad officials argue they'll be more than replaced by increased riders as a result of the Double Track project.

"We need West Lake to happen for the increased ridership on the South Shore Line," South Shore President Michael Noland said.

Why is there no transit-oriented development around current stations?

The RDA has the lead role in planning for transit-oriented development, or TOD. Its leaders and consultants maintain that the housing, retail, office and public spaces commonly associated with TOD only come about with careful planning, marketing and incentives, none of which have been done in any comprehensive way in the past.

The consulting firm KPMG is currently completing a detailed study of TOD possibilities, and the state, in the recent legislative session, created transit-development districts surrounding current and proposed stations.

They would put any growth in local income and property taxes into a TDD fund to do infrastructure work, provide incentives or finance other activities to attract development.

Is the money there?

The state has committed to paying $12 million per year, for 30 years, for the twin South Shore projects through appropriations in the biennial state budget. The commitment was backed up in legislation this year that makes the Indiana Finance Authority the bonding authority in partnership with the RDA, taking advantage of the state agency's established high credit rating and putting the state in what Hanna calls "a handshake relationship" with the RDA.

Locally, the commitments of 16 of 20 Lake County governments have been secured in an interlocal agreement. Hammond has enacted a resolution committing its share, though hasn't formalized that by entering the interlocal agreement. Griffith, St. John and Cedar Lake have not committed to contributions.

The federal contribution would come from the Capital Investment Grant programs funded through the 2015 Fixing America's Surface Transportation, or FAST, Act, which runs from fiscal year 2016 through 2020 with an allocation of about $2.3 billion each year, though fiscal year 2017's budget exceeds that by about $100 million.

The South Shore hopes for West Lake and Double Track to be advanced to be included in the federal budget for fiscal year 2019.

But isn't President Trump going to kill the federal funding?

The Trump administration's budget proposal eliminates the CIG program and its New Starts and Core Capacity grants necessary for the South Shore projects. That budget proposal, area officials are quick to point out, is just that — a proposal — and Congress is no more likely to follow it in detail than it has with any other president's. But there are other opponents to federal mass transit spending: the 2016 Republican Party platform criticized the Obama administration's efforts related to mass transit.

The Obama administration, the platform stated, "subordinates civil engineering to social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit. Its ill-named Livability Initiative is meant to 'coerce people out of their cars,'" referring to a statement made by former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

On the other side of that is the FAST Act itself, which took years to finalize and is only approaching its mid-point. And, there are 54 projects in 20 states seeking federal grants now in the CIG program.

Double Track is in the Core Capacity project development phase, along with projects from San Francisco, Hudson County in New Jersey and two projects in Dallas. Six projects are with West Lake in the New Starts project development phase, including two from Phoenix and one each from Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, San Jose, Durham, N.C. and Secaucus NJ/NY.

The RDA's Hanna said the economic development aspect of the project planning could help differentiate it from others in federal officials' eyes.

"This is a substantial jobs package that puts the (Federal Transit Administration) in a position to become an economic development organization, like they have been in the past, but in an amplified fashion," he said. "We're going to be leveraging that when we make our funding case in Washington."

Will West Lake be extended further south? Will a line to Valparaiso be built?

Both of those possibilities, expressed in NICTD's remain on officials' radar. And if expectations for growth from West Lake and Double Track come to fruition, "that's going to make our lives easier when we go for future projects," Noland said.

How does South Bend fit into the South Shore's plans?

South Bend and St. Joseph County, along with NICTD, are also seeking to make the rail ride to Chicago quicker and more efficient. A project to re-route the railroad on its approach to South Bend International Airport, and to move the airport train station to to its west side, was included in NICTD's five-year capital plan approved early this year, and the South Bend Redevelopment Commission has committed to as much as $25 million in funding for it.