MICHIGAN CITY | South Shore Line commuter trains on two tracks with quicker travel times to and from Chicago could bring even more energy to the revitalization already occurring in Michigan City's downtown.
No ground has been broken yet but a consensus reached last week between representatives of the city and railroad on where the double tracks and other significant upgrades on the line should go is a major step toward making the project happen.
The consensus opens the first door toward applying for federal dollars surely needed to fund a project estimated at slightly more than $100 million.
"We recognize their economic development desires and they recognized our operational desires," said Gerald Hanas, general manager of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, which operates the railroad.
The Management Oversight Group consisting of four members apiece from the city and NICTD agreed last week to install double tracks on an elevated platform along the existing century-old north end route, which has just a single rail in the middle of neighborhood streets.
Mayor Ron Meer, one of the city representatives on the MOG, said the agreement was necessary to start ordering studies on what impact a dual rail system could have on the environment and other quality of life issues.
Those studies are required to apply for federal funding that would pay for the brunt of the work.
"The majority of any funding for this project is going to come from the federal government," said Meer.
The group chose to put a new train station on the existing route, rather than several other proposed routes, because it cost less and will remain closer to the redevelopment occurring on the city's north end.
Meer said passengers on the upgraded line can get off at the growing Uptown Arts District and be near other attractions like the lakefront, Blue Chip Casino and Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets.
Such convenience lends itself to greater opportunities to market the north end to Chicago and South Bend.
The new train station would be more than a mile away from the casino and mall, quite a walk for some folks getting off the train. But Meer said there likely would be shuttle service provided by those entities, particularly if marketing efforts work to bring strong enough ridership.
"It's all in a pretty comprehensive plan," Meer said.
Hanas said NICTD preferred relocating the tracks farther to the south feeling being closer to major highways like U.S. 20 would mean easier access for customers to the trains.
City officials kept insisting on the existing route and, eventually, won NICTD over.
"There had to be a lot of negotiations and give and take. We believe it can work," said Hanas.