Operators of the South Shore Line will give the public a look at a project they say would slash commute times to Chicago at three workshops this week.

The project would add a second track to the commuter railroad and upgrade five stations between Gary and Michigan City in an effort to speed the trip to Chicago. The estimated cost of the project, dubbed Double Track NWI, is $210 million.

According to estimates included in a new Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority strategic plan, almost half an hour would be sliced off the ride from Michigan City, with total trip time dropping to an hour and 11 minutes compared to the current hour and 39 minutes. The ride from Miller would be cut by 18 minutes, with total trip time dropping to 49 minutes from the current hour and seven minutes.

The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District received the go-ahead from the Federal Transit Administration earlier this year to begin planning the project. It has hired the engineering firm HDR to do the initial environmental and engineering work for $4 million.

“We are well underway in conducting the significant engineering and environmental work required by the federal process,” NICTD President Michael Noland told the railroad’s board of trustees at its September meeting.

‘A real urgency’

NICTD is meeting with a variety of agencies and companies to discuss Double Track NWI’s impact, including NIPSCO, the National Park Service, the Indiana Department of Transportation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The railroad is also in discussions with South Shore Freight Railroad, which shares tracks with the commuter railroad, concerning two potential bottlenecks, Noland said. One is in west Gary and the other in the area of ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor steel mill and the Bailly Generating Station.

The Miller neighborhood in Gary and Michigan City would see the most noticeable evidence of the project.

In Miller, the plan requires the realignment of U.S. 12 “so we can keep our station in Gary right near Lake Street,” Noland said. The point where U.S. 12 merges with U.S. 20 would be moved east, and a stretch of U.S. 12 between Clay Street and the South Howard Street area eliminated.

The work will allow a smoother track alignment, a full, high-level platform and new parking garage at the station.

In Michigan City, where tracks have run down the middle of streets for more than a century, NICTD is discussing new track and station layouts with city officials, Noland said. The mid-street tracks would be replaced by roadside tracks.

The initial environmental and engineering work needs to be done in less than a year, to keep the project on track for construction in 2019 and 2020.

Submitting the project to the federal government in August would make it eligible for inclusion in the federal budget the next fiscal year.

“There is a real urgency getting into the federal pipeline,” Noland said. “It’s a competitive process. We’re well served by getting this to the FTA in August.”

Federal funding would cover half the project cost, leaving the other half to state and local sources. NICTD officials hope to have the state and local sources determined by next summer.

“We’ve been gaining significant traction” in earning support from state officials, Noland said.

The railroad has established a website for information about the project at www.doubletrack-nwi.com.

‘Quality of place’

Double Track NWI, along with the $600 million West Lake Corridor project to extend the South Shore from Hammond to Dyer, have become the main focus of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, the economic development agency representing Lake and Porter counties.

The quicker commute times that Double Track NWI would allow would “place Lake and Porter county communities well within the typical commuting window of most Chicago workers,” according to the RDA’s recently published strategic plan.

In addition to its participation in the funding of West Lake, the RDA is engaged in promoting the two projects as economic development engines for the areas surrounding train stations — so-called transit-oriented development.

At a September presentation to regional planning authorities about the RDA’s new comprehensive strategic plan, RDA President and CEO Bill Hanna said the two projects together constitute an “entire system upgrade.”

The RDA strategic plan’s ambitious projections include an estimated $2.3 billion in private and public capital investment in the areas of eight stations, 5,700 local jobs, increasing personal income with the Chicago “wage premium” and significant increases in population.

“You never have to set a foot on that train to see a benefit,” Hanna said.

“You now open up to a brand new market concept,” he said, one that will attract developers interested in the type of housing, retail and recreational developments surrounding Metra stations in the Chicago suburbs.

“We’re not really at the table,” Hanna said about transit-oriented development. “We’re not in the game at that level.”

That’s partly due to a “transportation desert” in Northwest Indiana, he argued. But, “connectivity is not enough by itself. Quality of place is important too.”

The RDA’s new comprehensive strategic plan is available at www.in.gov/rda/.


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.