The web of commuter rail that spreads from downtown Chicago into the Illinois suburbs — 490 miles of track with 241 stations — stands in marked contrast to the single lining running along Lake Michigan's shore, covering 90 miles to South Bend, with 19 stations.
That contrast was at the front of state lawmakers' minds four years ago when they reauthorized the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, with the idea that the RDA would focus on a transformative project that would take advantage of the Region's proximity to Chicago.
That was the catalyst that brought financial commitments to the long-discussed West Lake Corridor commuter rail extension, and then to the Double Track recapitalization of the existing South Shore Line. The projects, with a potential capital investment of more than $1 billion, would add nine miles of rail from Hammond to Dyer, and add a second set of tracks and modernize the line between Gary and Michigan City.
Local and state funding has been committed for West Lake, and is in the final phases for Double Track. Both projects remain in the federal Capital Investment Grant program, which recently had its 2019 appropriation of $2.6 billion finalized in the omnibus budget bill signed last month.
“I am pleased that this law supports the great economic value of the Capital Investment Grant program," U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, said after the fiscal 2019 budget bill was passed. "And I will continue to do everything possible to support the West Lake expansion and the Double Track projects through their application processes. "
The projects would push passenger rail service into south Lake County for the first time since the Gary Railways' trolley cars ran, and would put the Michigan City-to-Chicago trip at the sought-after one-hour mark.
A challenging market: This year, the South Shore has budgeted for $51.6 million in operating expenses, while Metra has budgeted $822.2 million — but face some of the same challenges.
"Dealing with expenses is going to be a major challenge for us," Noland said at the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District's January meeting. He noted the implementation of the federally mandated Postive Train Control safety system in particular as requiring growth in operating expenses. The railroad is spending nearly $100 million on infrastructure and technology as it prepares PTC for implementation.
"When we flip that switch ... then all those expenses — for the people that are running the system, extra insurance layers and all the costs — now shift over into the operating budget," Noland said.
Metra has pegged its PTC operating costs, for 2019, at $4.5 million, and also cited rising labor, benefits, fuel and other costs as putting pressure on operations.
Both railroads saw drops in off-peak and weekend ridership last year. Noland said targeting that segment will be a focus of marketing efforts, as a way to give fare revenue a bump in .
Similarities in operating and ridership challenges aren't always matched on the infrastructure side. Metra's $185.6 million capital budget won't meet its needs, Metra officials wrote in their 2019 budget statement:
"Half of (Metra's) bridges are more than 100 years old, and at the present rate of replacement of three bridges a year, it would take Metra 150 years to replace the oldest bridges. Its diesel cars have an average age of 30 years, the oldest in the nation. The oldest cars in daily service are more than 65 years old. Its locomotives have an average age of 31 years, the oldest in the nation. The oldest locomotives are more than 41 years old. ... Metra needs help, and the most likely source of that help is the state of Illinois, which created the RTA in 1973 and then Metra a decade later, after recognizing that the private railroads then operating commuter rail service in Chicago could not continue without public subsidies."
The Metra Board of Directors recently approved a $70.9 million contract to purchase 15 remanufactured locomotives. The contract with Progress Rail Locomotives of La Grange includes options to buy up to 27 additional locomotives, if funding is available.
The South Shore's 2019 capital plan includes about $27.1 million for West Lake and Double Track, $41.2 million for PTC, and another $27.9 million for maintenance and federally supported State of Good Repair projects. A catenary replacement project is nearing completion, and the railroad's capital plan through 2024 includes completion of bridge replacements and start of an electric substation renewal project.
In 2017, the state Legislature and Gov. Eric Holcomb agreed to increase the state's fuel taxes by 10 cents per gallon, hike vehicle registration fees and open the door to highway tolling in order to annually spend nearly $1 billion more on improving state and local roads. While the interstate tolling idea was seen as important as gas tax revenue declines, Holcomb nixed the idea late last year.
The list of road projects, both state and local, was bolstered by the immediate addition of revenue. The state's currentlist of projects for the next 18 months includes well over 100 projects, ranging from bridge maintenance to bike trail extensions.
And the state is continuing its Community Crossings matching grant program, which in its last round provided these grants: Lake County, $1 million; LaPorte County, $636,591; Porter County, $817,545; Beverly Shores, $297,225; Burns Harbor, $1 million; Chesterton, $444,618; Dune Acres, $325,543; Kouts, $185,755; LaPorte, $460,037; Long Beach, $719,483; Lowell, $1 million; Michiana Shores, $84,034; New Chicago, $65,228; Pines, $63,000; Schererville, $1 million; Schneider, $74,670; Valparaiso, $1 million; Whiting, $374,591; Winfield, $981,930
INDOT plans to announce the next round of Community Crossings grants in late March.
Illinois lawmakers, who haven't enacted a new transportation infrastructure capital plan in a decade, are considering funding mechanisms including a gas tax. Among supporters is the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which has called for a gas tax increase to cover the short term, and for the future supports a "road usage charge," collected as a per mile fee.
"The funds available today are not even sufficient for maintaining our current infrastructure," CMAP wrote in a recent policy update. "To simply operate and maintain the system, as well as to modernize and improve its condition, the state and the region must pursue additional revenues."
Gary/Chicago International Airport
The Gary/Chicago International Airport saw operations — takeoffs and landings — decline in 2018 but fuel flowage and landing fee revenue increase. Officials attributed the apparent incongruity to the fact that the airport is servicing larger airplanes, making longer flights.
The 21,365 total operations in 2018, down 9.4 percent from 2017, were also impacted by wintery weather in November and a reduction in the number of small hangars available at the airport.
The final phase of the Gary/Chicago International Airport's main runway rehabilitation will be completed in spring in a $7.5 million project to be led by Superior Construction of Portage. The project will rebuild the middle section of the runway with concrete. Two earlier phases, completed in 2017 and earlier this year, rehabilitated two other sections of the runway at a cost of more than $12 million.
The newest portion of the 8,859-foot runway, the 2,000-foot extension completed in 2015, is already concrete.
A variety of other planned projects includes landscaping and signage upgrades, rehabilitation of the rescue and firefighting station and other maintenance work.
The airport also hopes to have a new master plan submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration by mid-year.
The big question for many Region residents — What about passenger carrier service? — remained unanswered early this year.
"Talks are ongoing," Executive Director Duane Hayden told the Airport Authority in January, "but I will not bring anything before you unless it's real — unless the carrier has a good business plan."