The board of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District on Friday voted 8-1 to cooperate with the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority in developing a strategic business plan for the railroad.
Under the resolution approved by the board, the two agencies will form a joint working group to determine the scope of the study and its cost will be split evenly between the two. It has an estimated price tag somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000, said NICTD General Manager Gerald Hanas.
The study could help answer questions such as how to balance the push to improve the current South Shore line with the long-sought goal of building a new branch known as the West Lake expansion, Hanas said.
RDA President and CEO Bill Hanna said a similar process was used several years ago to kick start the runway expansion project at the Gary/Chicago International Airport.
"There are probably a lot of options for collaboration we are not taking advantage of right now," Hanna said.
In the past, the NICTD board has been leery of statements of cooperation with other agencies. In early 2009, it unanimously rejected a "statement of shared goals" with the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority. It also reacted skeptically three years ago to legislative efforts to create a Regional Transportation District.
Some of that skepticism was still alive on Friday, with NICTD board member and St. Joseph County Commissioner Robert Kovach voting no.
"In the past they tried to draw my county into the bus problems that existed in Lake and Porter counties," Kovach said. "And we have no problems with our buses."
Hanna said the RDA board could act on the same resolution as early as its next meeting in August. Both boards will vote again once a consultant is selected to perform the study.
The NICTD board also voted on Friday to authorize a memorandum of understanding that will allow a pedestrian/bike bridge to span the Little Calumet river within an unused South Shore right-of-way known as the Monon Corridor.
Hanas told the board the South Shore still would have priority on using the right-of-way, which runs through Hammond and Munster, if a decision is ever made to undertake the West Lake expansion along that route.
The new pedestrian/bike bridge would most likely be built just west of a Monon Corridor trestle that spans the river at the Hammond/Munster line, Hanas said.
In a report to the board, Hanas said that persistent hot weather in July, including three days of 100-degree plus temperatures, had basically "destroyed" the South Shore's on-time performance during the afternoon rush-hour.
Excessive heat can cause rail joints to kink or buckle, so train speeds have to be reduced to 55 mph from their usual maximum of 79 mph when temperatures on the iron rails reach 130 degrees, Hanas said. East of Michigan City, where an aging catenary system of overhead wires is still in place, hot weather causes those wires to sag, also causing delays, Hanas said.
"We receive a lot of complaints from our customers on this issue," he said. "But basically it's an issue of safety. And it's safety first."
The NICTD board took the first step toward remedying the situation east of Michigan City when it approved spending $767,000 for parts needed to replace the catenary system there. The catenary system has already been replaced from Chicago to Michigan City.
Hanas also reported there is preliminary consensus between Michigan City and railroad officials that the best solution to getting South Shore trains out of city streets is to move them northward to Michigan Boulevard (U.S. 12).
The new tracks there would use one side of Michigan Boulevard's right-of-way. That would necessitate reducing the boulevard to one lane in either direction.
For the South Shore, the realignment would result in a reduction in delays and faster travel times. It also would allow the consolidation of the city's current two train stops to one. For Michigan City, the move would help reduce congestion on city streets where trains now run. A new South Shore station near city hall would also help unlock the area's development potential, Hanas said.