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NICTD discussing methods to reduce Double Track cost

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A passenger walks from a South Shore Line train after it stopped at the Michigan City 11th Street Station on April 30, the last day trains stopped at the station as advance work on the Double Track project began.

CHESTERTON — The South Shore Line, its state and local partners and its engineering consultants are continuing to work with construction companies to close the $172 million gap between the estimated cost and the actual bids on the main contract for its Double Track project.

A bid opening early this month revealed a proposal to perform the railroad, bridge and train station work for about $400 million, far exceeding engineers' estimates that anticipated a price of about $228 million.

"Obviously this was a giant miss," South Shore President Michael Noland said at Monday's regular meeting of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District Board of Trustees. But he said the railroad is confident that project refinements and revisions, along with additional funding, will produce a plan that maintains the goal of expanded and quicker service to Chicago.

"We have to maintain the integrity of the project," he said.

Noland said NICTD's other major project, the West Lake Corridor, required a similar process. The best bid for that project, about $664 million, was reduced to just under $555 million before a contract was signed with the design-construction team of F.H. Paschen and Ragnar Benson. That included cutting a maintenance yard from the project and tightening station platforms.

"We've done this before; we're confident we can do it again," Noland said.

For Double Track, options include using single high-level boarding platforms at stations where two have been planned, or deciding not to build planned storage tracks, relying instead on existing ones at Gary Metro Station. 

Changes could also include having the railroad purchase rail and ties for the project upfront, removing that purchase and risk associated with price uncertainty, from the contractor. Arrangements that remove price risk for the construction company for commodities like copper, a significant need for the project, can also help reduce cost, Noland said.

Additional funding will come from the American Rescue Plan, which allocates money to projects in the federal New Starts grant program like the South Shore's, with Double Track slated for $24.6 million and West Lake $44 million.

The South Shore's current timeline calls for a new bid package to be issued as soon as late June, with bids due 60 days later in hopes of beginning construction work late this year.

Also Monday, the railroad's administration told the board: 

• Some schedule revisions may be made to make service more predictable during Double Track work.

• F.H. Paschen/Ragnar Benson's design work on the West Lake extension from Hammond to Dyer has passed the 60% mark. About 95% of needed properties have been purchased, and most of the residential properties have been demolished. Construction is set to begin this fall. 

• South Shore ridership is improving from last year — this April saw 63,138 rider as compared to 15,714 in April 2020 — but is still off about 80% as compared to January-April of 2019.

• Last month was the best April the railroad has had for the number of riders bringing a bike on the train.

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