State financing process for South Shore Line projects advances in the Indiana House

The House Ways and Means Committee voted 18-0 Thursday for legislation establishing a financing process for the South Shore Line's double-track project and West Lake extension.

Dan Carden, The Times

The South Shore Line's West Lake Corridor and Double Track projects have made their second appearance in the Federal Transit Administration's annual funding recommendations report, but have done so without official project ratings, at the request of railroad officials.

An FTA rating of "medium" or higher is required for the projects to earn grants from the federal Capital Investment Grant program. The FTA's five-level rating scale considers a project's justification and local financial commitment.

Though the projects were submitted for ratings in September, railroad officials asked the Federal Transit Administration to hold off while work on environmental studies and financial plans is completed.

"We're so close to finishing our environmental work," South Shore President Michael Noland said, "and I want to make sure (FTA officials) understand we have all of our financing in place."

The South Shore is finishing its Environmental Impact Statement for West Lake and an Environmental Assessment for Double Track. The former would be ratified by an FTA Record of Decision and the latter by a Finding of No Significant Impact.

"Completion of the environmental studies will put us in the best position for the highest possible rating," Noland said. 

And, he said more time is needed to explain the projects' complex state-and-local financial package to the FTA. It includes a mix of state and local funding and a partnership with the Indiana Finance Authority as seller of the bonds, which is seen as a crucial reassurance for bond buyers.

Noland said deferral of project ratings won't impact their timeline. "It doesn't in any way, shape or form slow us down," he said. 

The West Lake and Double Track projects are listed in the FTA's Annual Report on Funding Recommendations, released Monday in conjunction with the administration's fiscal year 2019 budget proposal. The projects made their first appearance in last year's funding report.

The 2019 report lists construction costs of $321 million for Double Track and $661 million for West Lake.

The FTA is recommending $1 billion for 10 projects that already have grant agreements. In line with a Trump administration goal, though, it does not include money for any additional project in the CIG program's New Starts, Core Capacity and Small Starts queues.

But the House of Representatives and Senate have acted to support the CIG program over the past year, most recently in the fiscal 2017 budget and in stop-and-go work on the belated fiscal 2018 budget. South Shore project supporters hope to see funding continue, with the aim of being included in the 2019 budget. 

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Transportation reporter

Andrew covers transportation, real estate, casinos and other topics for The Times business section. A Crown Point native, he joined The Times in 2014, and has more than 15 years experience as a reporter and editor at Region newspapers.