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South Shore projects approach home stretch of federal grant program
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South Shore projects approach home stretch of federal grant program

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South Shore in Hammond

A westbound South Shore Line trian passes through the Hohman Avenue crossing near the Hammond station.

Last week's inclusion of the South Shore Line's Double Track and West Lake Corridor projects in the Federal Transit Administration's annual funding report wasn't the first time either has appeared in it, but their advancing status in the Capital Investment Grants program puts both projects, for the first time, one step from receiving funding. That makes the federal fiscal year 2021 the year both projects could move into the funding category. 

West Lake and Double Track, each in line for a New Starts grant in the CIG program, join four other projects in the engineering phase — one each in Phoenix and Los Angeles and two in Minneapolis.

"Two of six," Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District President and CEO Michael Noland noted the day after the FTA issued its report. "That's pretty impressive. We are so excited to be at this stage with both projects."

The FTA's project summaries include the goal of a grant agreement for West Lake in the fall of this year, and for Double Track by June 2021. If those targets are achieved, the projects would join eight New Starts projects already with full-funding grant agreements. Two of those projects are in Los Angeles and two in Seattle, with one each in San Diego, Boston, Fort Worth and the Baltimore-Washington area in Maryland.

The grant program

The Department of Transportation is recommending $1.9 billion for the various CIG grants in fiscal 2021, which runs from October 2020 through September 2021. The eight currently funded projects would take $945 million of that, with most of the remainder available for projects "that may become ready for funding" during the fiscal year. Specific appropriations, authorized by Congress, are only scheduled based on a negotiated full-funding grant agreement.

The FTA's funding report was issued in conjunction with the Trump administration's 2021 budget proposal. Congress tends to take its own path to a final budget, and that's proved true with the CIG program in recent years. The five-year law that establishes the CIG program, the FAST Act, allocates $2.3 billion for it annually. Congress has appropriated funding ranging from $2.18 billion to $2.65 billion during the FAST Act's first four years.

The Trump administration's early proposals recommended funding only projects with full-funding grant agreements, effectively suggesting a phasing out of the program. The administration also rankled some members of Congress who perceived the administration to be stalling the awarding of funds Congress had appropriated. The administration has since added money for projects nearing a grant, though generally not as much as Congress appropriates.

Since the FTA's most recent award early this year, it boasts that since the start of the administration, "FTA has advanced funding for 25 new CIG projects throughout the nation, totaling approximately $7.63 billion." With that January funding announcement, "this administration has executed 22 CIG funding agreements totaling more than $4.55 billion in CIG funding."

The South Shore projects have the unequivocal backing of federal legislators representing the region and state, and project leaders say top officials of the FTA view it as consistent with the agency's goals.

“They really, really like them from a mobility and a development standpoint,” Noland said. “It’s exactly what they’re trying to do across the country.”

The projects

With entry to the engineering phase of the grant program, the federal government's maximum potential contribution to a project is set. For West Lake, that is $354.6 million, which is 38% of the total capital cost of $933.1 million. That includes the $816.3 million estimated construction cost and $116.8 million in financing costs. For Double Track, the maximum federal contribution is set at $173 million, or 37.9% of the $456 million capital cost. That total includes the $416 million estimated construction cost and $40.1 million in financing costs.

The West Lake project includes an eight-mile rail line from Hammond to Dyer, with four new stations and parking lots, a maintenance and storage facility in Hammond, three traction power substations and refurbishment of 32 rail cars.

Double Track includes a new second track along single-track sections of the South Shore between Gary and Michigan City, as well as platform upgrades at five stations, new parking and moving the street-running segment of the railroad in Michigan City off the street.

For more information on the projects, visit NICTD's sites at doubletrack-nwi.com and nictdwestlake.com and the FTA's site at transit.dot.gov/CIG.

Gallery: 25 South Shore Line excursions

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