Elaine Chao in South Bend

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, center, with Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority President and CEO Bill Hanna, left, and Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District President Michael Noland after a meeting last week at the South Bend International Airport. Local, state and federal officials discussed the South Shore Line's planned infrastructure projects at the meeting.

Kale Wilk, The Times

MERRILLVILLE — The South Shore Line's West Lake Corridor and Double Track NWI projects will reach a milestone Friday as railroad officials submit project plans to the Federal Transit Administration for its review and rating.

The FTA will issue a rating that would advance the projects to the engineering phase of the Capital Investment Grants program.

"That is a big step in this project," South Shore President Michael Noland said. "Short of getting our full-funding grant agreement, this is the biggest hurdle that we will face — getting that project rating from the FTA."

The railroad is asking for 50-percent federal funding for the projects, which now have an estimated combined cost of $977 million.

The projects need at least a "medium" rating on a five-level scale. Noland said he believes West Lake will earn a "medium high" rating and Double Track a "high" rating.

Noland's comments came during a Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority meeting Thursday at which the RDA board committed to paying up to $12.5 million annually for the projects, and issuing up to $750 million in debt to help finance them.

The Capital Investment Grants program includes New Starts grants, which would fund half the cost of the West Lake Corridor, now estimated at $665 million, and Core Capacity grants, which would pay half of the double-tracking project, now with an estimated cost of $312 million.

The projects' cost estimates were most recently at $615 million and $290 million, respectively. Several project changes have increased the costs, as has an increase in annual inflation projections, from 1.7 to 3.1 percent.

Noland, along with RDA President and CEO Bill Hanna, said the estimates were deliberately "conservative," because the cost number submitted to the FTA on Friday will set the federal grant level.

The RDA finalized its commitment of up to $12.5 million annually for up to 30 years to the projects. The state has committed $6 million per year for the same period of time, and local governments in Lake County have committed about $4.5 million per year for the West Lake project.

Local governments in LaPorte and St. Joseph counties have made upfront commitments of $18.25 million each for Double Track.

Congress is currently working on the fiscal year 2018 budget, and the appropriations committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate have issued bills continuing the CIG programs. The South Shore is aiming for funding in fiscal 2019.

The fact that state and local funding has been secured will help the applications if and when they're considered for funding, South Shore and RDA officials say.

Hanna said ongoing planning for development around South Shore stations, along with dedicated tax increment financing, will also help in the competition for federal grants. 

"Our project is going in not just with the funds, but also with a solid, funded plan for generating real development around the station areas," Hanna said. "It is a comprehensive economic development package and infrastructure investment."

Hanna said the combination of secured local financing and economic development potential "dovetails very nicely" with the direction the Department of Transportation is taking in the new administration.

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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.