The operator of the South Shore commuter railroad is preparing to have its say before a legislative committee that could recommend big changes for Indiana's only commuter rail operation.
Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District General Manager Gerald Hanas briefed railroad trustees Friday at the Dune Park station on what the committee is looking for and what the railroad can provide.
A $550,000 railroad study NICTD is undertaking jointly with the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority will not be complete when the committee meets in late summer, but it still could provide valuable insight, Hanas said.
“It is kind of our blueprint for the future,” he said.
The legislative committee was charged with looking at the composition of NICTD's board of trustees as well as the long-talked-about expansion to Lowell and Valparaiso.
Those topics were assigned to the committee after State Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, introduced a bill in the General Assembly's last session that would have radically reshaped the four-county board of trustees to tip its balance of power toward Lake County.
Reardon complained NICTD had not moved quickly enough to make the extensions to Lowell and Valparaiso a reality.
NICTD trustee John Evans, a Porter County commissioner, said it is easy for state officials to say the railroad has not done enough to make the extensions a reality. But he said the other reality is it will take a lot of money to get the extensions built.
“This really all has to start with a referendum in the communities to see if there is a mood among the public to have this done and pay for it,” Evans said. “And the only way to pay for it is with a tax.”
Hanas also delivered a report on progress on the high-level boarding platform under construction at Dune Park, which will cut minutes off the trip to Chicago.
A portion of the platform should be ready for use by July or August if construction goes according to plan, Hanas said.
NICTD has been converting stations to high-level platforms one by one over the years, with trip times to Chicago now cut by a total of 15 minutes or so when all the time savings are added up.
NICTD also is submitting an application to the U.S. Department of Transportation for a stimulus grant to help pay the cost of replacing $7.7 million in equipment at electric substations, Hanas said. The move comes after an incident where a power surge destroyed important components at two substations.
It also wants to win the same type of grant to help fund $23.8 million in work on the last phase of its project to replace all the overhead wires on its rail line.
The last phase of work is taking place between Michigan City and South Bend.
The two grants would pay about 76 percent of the cost of the two projects, Hanas said.