CHESTERTON — The South Shore Line's governing body gave the railroad's plan to build the nine-mile West Lake Corridor its official endorsement Friday — "a day 30 years in the making," according to the South Shore's president.
"It's a historic day, it's a day for celebration," Michael Noland said about publication of a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the West Lake Corridor project, which would extend the South Shore south from Hammond to Dyer.
A first West Lake Corridor study was done in the late 1980s. U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, in attendance at Friday's meeting of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, said officials there have been working since then toward the project's implementation.
"Over a generation and a half, each of you has seen the future of Northwest Indiana," Visclosky said. The West Lake project will help provide "economic transformation and growth," he said.
"But there is still more work to be done," Visclosky said.
Locally, he wants to get financial support from the four communities in Lake County that haven't "come on board" with funding pledges. They are East Chicago, Cedar lake, Griffith and St. John.
And, both West Lake and the proposed Double Track NWI projects need to be submitted to the Federal Transit Authority for consideration for grants that would pay half their cost in August — "not September, not October," Visclosky said.
The Double Track project would add a second set of tracks between Gary and Michigan City with the intent of speeding commutes to and from Chicago.
"The train is really the spine of our economic development and connectivity to Chicago," said Bill Hanna, president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, which is administering financing for West Lake, and coordinating planning for development around new stations, commonly referred to as transit-oriented development.
Exhaustive study details project
The draft EIS is about 600 pages, with thousands of pages of data in appendices. It contains analysis of everything from the noise and vibration the trains will cause, to the impact on wetlands and wildlife, to the impact on property along its route.
The preferred route would connect the new rail line to the existing South Shore at a Hammond Gateway station just west of the current Hammond station. The plan includes a maintenance yard just south of that.
Additional stations would be at 173rd Street in Hammond, southeast of Ridge Road and Manor Avenue in Munster, and at Main Street on the Munster-Dyer border. The preferred plan puts parking on the west side of the tracks at that station, with the station and platform on the east side.
The preferences of the city of Hammond and town of Munster helped determine the rail line's alignment and station preferences. Other factors included minimizing travel time, just 47 minutes to Millennium Station; grade-separation from freight rail activity; and higher forecasted weekday boardings.
Annual ridership on the West Lake line is expected to be 2.1 million by 2040, Noland said.
A list of 19 performance ratings for the 12 alternatives considered, including a "no build" alternative, gave the preferred alternative 14 "good" marks, three "fair" and two "poor."
The fair marks were for flood plain impact and for commercial property acquisition; the poor mark was for residential property acquisition, something that's caused some protest at early public forums on the project.
The draft EIS contemplates purchase of 139 acres total, about half vacant. Most of the parcels are residential, and the project would require 91 "displacements" of residential owners or tenants.
The findings of the EIS will be subject of three public hearings in January. The draft EIS, along with more information on the West Lake Corridor project, is available online at www.nictdwestlake.com.