A gathering in South Bend last week of local, state and federal officials to discuss the South Shore Line's major infrastructure projects came just as important decision-making is shifting to the nation's capital, where in the coming months technical details of the projects will be reviewed by the Federal Transit Administration and work on a 2018 federal budget will continue in Congress.
The FTA's work will decide whether to advance the West Lake Corridor and Double Track NWI projects to the engineering phase of the Capital Investment Grants program, which would fund half the projects' construction costs. Friday marks the final day plans can be submitted to have a chance at being in the fiscal 2019 budget.
Meanwhile, Congress returns to work Tuesday with only four weeks until the end of the federal fiscal year. While money from the budget Congress is working on now wouldn't fund South Shore projects, continuation of the grant programs is at stake.
The Trump administration's 2018 budget proposal, issued in early summer, included $1.2 billion for the CIG program — essentially just enough to pay for projects the federal government has already agreed to fund, with the intention of phasing the program out as projects are completed.
In the House
Congress and the president will need to agree on stopgap funding in September in order to avoid a government shutdown.
"The year starts on Oct. 1," U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, said. "It's clear Congress will not have completed its work."
But committee work was done during the summer. The House Appropriations Committee's transportation bill, approved in July, allocates over $1.7 billion to the CIG program. That includes money to fund ongoing projects, as called for in the Trump budget, and some new money allocated to specific project types.
The bill does not allocate substantial new money for the New Starts and Core Capacity grants West Lake and Double Track would depend on, though the committee report issued with the bill instructs the Department of Transportation to continue the programs and to continue advancing projects through the grant process.
In the Senate
The Senate Appropriations Committee was more friendly to program supporters. Its bill largely maintained the CIG program as it is.
The committee has issued a bill providing about $2.1 billion in funding, including funding for projects underway and money for New Starts and Core Capacity projects advancing to the funding stage during the upcoming fiscal year.
In similar language as the House committee's report, the Senate committee wrote that it: "directs the Secretary (of Transportation) to continue to advance eligible projects into project development and engineering in the capital investment grant evaluation, rating and approval process ... in all cases when projects meet the statutory criteria."
Both of Indiana's U.S. senators, Republican Todd Young and Democrat Joe Donnelly, support the South Shore's projects and federal funding for them.
Young called the South Shore projects "a natural fit" for the grant programs.
Visclosky said the programs retain strong bipartisan support in Congress.
"I would point out that despite the fact that the administration asked for a cut in funding ... the house committee recommended a bill to the full house that would increase the administration request by $500 million," Visclosky said. And, he added, "the Senate committee has recommended and reported its bill to the full Senate, and asked for an increase of $900 million."