Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District officials have been running plans for a modified South Shore extension by region mayors and gathering funding ideas.
"There's no preconceived idea of what local funding mechanism to use," said NICTD Director of Planning and Marketing John Parsons. "But right now for this to advance we have to find a means to provide the local share."
Thrown on the table so far are a sales tax, local option income tax or gasoline tax, Parsons said. Any of those would probably require Indiana General Assembly action.
The modified commuter rail extension would run about eight miles from the main line in Hammond to Dyer. That proposal has strong support from mayors and town managers along the northern U.S. 41 corridor, Parsons said.
Other mayors also may support the plan, but not necessarily with funding.
Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas said his city is using its ChicaGo Dash bus service to the Loop as a precursor to eventually landing commuter rail service. He supports building the Hammond to Dyer line as a first step in that direction but said financial support does not seem to be "on the radar screen" of Porter County residents.
Previous plans to extend the South Shore to Lowell and Valparaiso would remain on the drawing board but would have to wait for completion of the Dyer branch, Parsons said. The earlier proposals would not have attracted enough riders relative to their expense to qualify for federal construction funds, he said.
On the proposed Dyer-to-Hammond route, seven trains per day would carry 4,510 passengers per week into Chicago, according to a study recently completed by consultant STV.
It would cost $464.4 million to build and have about $14 million in yearly operating costs, according to the study. NICTD would apply for the Federal Transportation Administration's New Start program to fund half the construction costs.
Once fares are deducted from operating costs, NICTD would need to come up with about $26.1 million yearly to pay for operations and debt service on the local share of construction bonds.
The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority is working with NICTD on the project, including introducing region mayors to the new plan.
The RDA's first priority was to identify a project that could qualify for federal funding and it feels that has now been done with the Hammond-to-Dyer proposal, said RDA Executive Director Bill Hanna.
"We will continue to work in partnership with communities in Northwest Indiana and others across the state of Indiana to inform the public of this new opportunity to access jobs in the Chicago marketplace," Hanna said.
When it comes to funding, the RDA plans to be a part of the solution, but cannot fund the entire plan, Hanna said.
In addition to the terminating Dyer stop, other stations proposed are an "aerial station" at a new 1.5 mile flyover bridge in Hammond, a Munster stop, and another station in Dyer. The flyover in Hammond would take the South Shore spur over three other railroads as well as the Grand Calumet River. It then would connect with the out-of-service Monon tracks purchased in the 1990s by NICTD, Hammond and Munster.