Transportation continues to be a front-burner issue in Northwest Indiana, with the long-sought Illiana Expressway project now getting under way and the regionalization of mass transit making historic advances.
The Illiana Expressway, talked about for decades, was put on the fast track to becoming reality in June. That's when Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bistate agreement at the Lansing Municipal Airport pledging their states will work together on the project.
"First of all, that meeting was symbolic," said Leigh Morris, chairman of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. "But more than that, it indicates a dedication to finding ways to work together, Illinois and Indiana, on projects of this type. This won't be the last time."
The roadway will connect Interstate 65 in Indiana with Interstate 55 in Illinois, providing a commuter and truck bypass for crowded interstates into and out of Chicago.
The Illinois Department of Transportation already has put two Illiana Expressway projects out to bid: a tier 1 environmental impact study and the job of project manager for that study. PB Americas of New York was chosen to perform the tier 1 study, and Aecom Technical Services Inc. of Los Angeles was selected to manage the study.
Another significant transportation development in the region was the takeover of the former Hammond Transit bus system by the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority. Although it is one of the smaller projects locally in terms of total money spent, it may end up serving as the template for the long-term survival of mass transit in Lake and Porter counties.
"We were all focused on the same thing, the city of Hammond, the RBA and the RDA," RBA Executive Director Tim Brown said. "We were all focused on the same target: doing something better than what's been done before."
A Lake County-to-Chicago Loop express bus service, part of the RBA's effort to lure "choice" riders to regional bus services, started last year. A similar service in Porter County, the ChicaGo Dash, has had its ridership steadily climb in the past two years so that it is now carrying 100 riders per day.
The RDA was created five years ago under legislation passed by the Indiana General Assembly to enhance bus service, commuter rail, Gary/Chicago International Airport and the Lake Michigan shore. It has representatives from Lake and Porter counties.
The Gary airport has been a key test of the RDA mission. Last year, the RDA helped fund a strategic business plan for the airport. Since then, the airport has started to conclude agreements with railroads that will allow for expansion of its main runway.
The airport is operating under a December 2013 deadline from the Federal Aviation Administration to have the project essentially completed, with new 1,000-foot safety areas at either end of the main runway.
"That is our goal and that is what we are focused on right now," Gary Airport Interim Director Steve Landry said.
The South Shore commuter rail line is on track for the completion of two major projects this year, according to Gerald Hanas, Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District general manager.
The $61 million installation of state-of-the-art signal enhancements will be completed later this year. The Kensington Crossing, one of the railroad's most delay-prone spots, will get new tracks that allows trains to arrive off-schedule and still proceed in a timely manner through the crossing.
"Every time we complete one of these projects, we see increases in reliability," Hanas said.
Highways in the region are coming in for their share of improvements, thanks to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels' Major Moves initiative and the Obama administration's stimulus program.
The $189 million Major Moves interchange modification of the Interstate 65/Borman Expressway junction, under way since 2007, is slated for completion this year.
More than 70 local street projects put forward by the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission have received funding under the federal stimulus program. The stimulus money is leading to the completion of double the usual number of region road projects, according to NIRPC Executive Director John Swanson.
"We were able to get more bang for our buck and do many more projects than we had scheduled," Swanson said.
Freight and passenger rail are sharing in the stimulus largess.
In February, the Federal Railroad Administration announced it was awarding $71.4 million in stimulus funds to speed trains through a freight and passenger rail junction in the town of Porter used by 14 Amtrak and numerous freight trains every day.
Called the Indiana Gateway project, it will create 703 construction jobs. It is the single largest stimulus project in the region. It will be key link in high speed rail routes that have been proposed from Chicago to Cleveland and Chicago to Detroit.
"You couldn't even begin to put faster passenger trains through that area without those changes being made at the Porter Junction," Morris said.