The South Shore commuter railroad from South Bend to Chicago is riding on the cusp of some of the biggest changes in its 106-year history.
U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., has renewed a push for extending the commuter rail line to south Lake County and a number of other major improvements are planned all along the line.
The proposed eight-mile extension to Munster and Dyer that Visclosky is advocating is less ambitious than previous proposals, but he and others see it as just the start for eventually laying tracks all the way to Lowell and Valparaiso.
"We want and need to keep our steel industry and basic manufacturing here," Visclosky said of a region still best known for its mammoth steel mills and heavy industry. "But I'm convinced mass transit also has to be part of the equation for us to be successful."
Building the extension to Dyer would result in 5,600 new daily riders, according to a recent study by Policy Analytics, of Indianapolis. All told, those new riders would haul about $147 million in paychecks annually back from Chicago to spend on housing, shopping, schools and other activities here in the region.
That kind of spending would create about 5,000 jobs here if the rail line were eventually to achieve its goal of going all the way to Lowell and Valparaiso, according to the study.
Lake County and municipalities are currently being rallied to donate a portion of their economic development tax collections to the effort. The state is also being lobbied for support for a project proponents say will pay for itself in job creation for the region and state.
"What we are trying to do is show our interest in it and hope the state revenue would follow through," said Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay, D-Hammond, who is a leader in the effort.
Once localities commit to contributing, South Shore operator Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District can then seek federal funding, which could pay up to half the expansion project's $571 million price tag.
"The issue revolves around what is the best approach we can take to be successful in coming up with the federal share," Visclosky said.
In 2013, the South Shore boarded 3.61 million passengers between South Bend and Chicago, most of them bound to good-paying jobs in Chicago's Loop and beyond.
Other projects are also in the planning stage for the South Shore, including a $180 million Michigan City realignment, which would get trains out of the middle of the streets there and on to their own right of way. That project would not only greatly increase safety, but would result in faster trip times.
In 2013, NICTD and Michigan City came to an historic agreement on the new alignment's path through the city.
Other projects planned include $35 million in Gary station improvements and a $15 million South Bend realignment to provide more direct access to South Bend Regional Airport.
It is estimated those improvements, along with others, could cut the trip time from South Bend to Chicago by 39 minutes, while trips from Gary and Hammond would be reduced by 16 minutes and 14 minutes, respectively, according to the study by Policy Analytics, of Indianapolis.
Those reductions in trip times would finally make Michigan City a reasonable daily commute for riders, bringing the city known for its historic lighthouse and lakefront activities that much closer to the Windy City.
Those improvements build on a number of projects in recent years that have vastly upgraded the South Shore's underlying infrastructure.
In 2009, with help from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority and Indiana officials, 14 new double-decker rail cars were put into service. They were the first double-decker cars to run on the South Shore since the early 1990s.
In late 2011, $61 million in signaling enhancements, a key to improving safety and cutting down on delays, went into operation on the South Shore line.
The $18 million Kensington Crossing project went into service in 2012. The project on Chicago's South Side helps speed South Shore trains through a crossing that also handles more than 180 Metra passenger trains and Canadian National Railway freight trains per day.