Commuter district eyes projects to improve rail system
by Christin Nance Lazerus email@example.com May 28, 2014 11:22PM
Travelers wait at the Gary Metro stop of the South Shore rail line in Gary for their train Thursday October 13, 2011. | File Photo~Sun-Times Media ptmet
Updated: June 30, 2014 12:56PM
MERRILLVILLE — The proposed West Lake extension is the most prominent project involving the South Shore Line at the moment, but the commuter train will have a variety of other projects on its plate in the coming years representing $1.5 billion in investment.
The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District released a draft of its 20-year Strategic Business Plan on Wednesday, alongside members of the Regional Development Authority. The plan was prepared by URS Corp. NICTD General Manger Gerald Hanas said it will be up for approval at the NICTD board’s Friday meeting.
“This is essentially a blueprint of how to best achieve a 20,000 daily ridership,” Hanas said. “With the job base in downtown Chicago being double that of Lake and Porter counties ... this would enhance economic development and enhance the disposable income being brought back here.”
NICTD spokesman John Parsons said the average daily weekday ridership numbers are currently between 11,000 and 12,000.
The projects range from routine maintenance, replacing 40-year-old train cars, and double tracking that would shorten trips to realigning routes that go through Michigan City and South Bend and improving the three stations that serve Gary.
The West Lake extension, which is estimated to cost around $571 million, would head south from Hammond and head into Munster and Dyer. The project has been championed by Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, who has secured financial commitments from most of the communities in Lake County, the Indiana General Assembly and the RDA. The project requires about 50 percent of its funds to come from local and state sources, and it would be built between 2018 and 2022.
RDA Executive Director Bill Hanna said Cedar Lake, East Chicago and Hammond have yet to make a decision on whether to commit a portion of their county economic development income tax revenues. If the local match comes up a bit short, he said the RDA could rearrange the start dates on some of its other projects because they believe in West Lake so strongly.
Routine maintenance ($401 million) and baseline capital improvements ($422 million) aren’t far behind the extension in terms of cost. Though maintenance is covered 100 percent by current federal and state funding sources, some have 50/50 federal match programs or will require 100 percent from state and local sources.
Two projects would add an extra track for NICTD traffic east of Tennessee Street in Gary to Michigan City ($98 million) as well as from 11th Place to Millennium Station in Chicago ($30 million), where one track or switch failure can stall all South Shore trains.
URS Regional Transit Practice Leader Ken Kinney said NICTD trips average around 39 mph, compared to Metra and Amtrak trips in the Chicago area that average 60 mph.
“The speed of the trip is a factor,” Kinney said.
NICTD has several projects in the works to improve trip times east of its busiest stations in East Chicago and Hammond. The most expensive project is a $109 million realignment and consolidation of the Michigan City stations. Michigan City is the only locality with existing tracks embedded in the streets; the improvement would have a dedicated right of way for the railroad and consolidate the two existing stations into one.
Proposed improvements at the Gary South Shore stations could cost between $38 million and $52 million due to two alternatives under consideration. The less expensive alternative would consolidate the three stations into one near Interstate 65 and the Indiana Toll Road, while the other would shutter the Clark Road station and upgrade the Miller and Metro Center stations.
An estimated $7 million would go toward installing high-level platforms at the Portage/Ogden Dunes station, $15 million would realign tracks to construct a more direct route to the South Bend Airport
Hanas said NICTD is already in talks with the RDA in terms of committing local funds to several of the projects.