South Shore Stock

The operator of the South Shore Line officially requested federal funding Friday for its Double Track project that aims to expand capacity and speed commutes between Northwest Indiana and Chicago.

The "entry into engineering" application submitted by the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD) asks the Federal Transit Administration to contribute $160.8 million of the $416 million total project cost, or 38%.

That's less than the 49% federal match originally anticipated by project planners. But it reflects recent award reductions in the federal New Starts grant program, said Dan Huge, a Hobart native who serves as Indiana's public finance director.

NICTD expects to receive federal approval and a project rating for Double Track in November.

Assuming no hiccups, Double Track construction then would start in May 2021, with expanded commuter rail service beginning in March 2023.

"The Double Track project will transform the physical and economic landscape of the Northwest Indiana region and catalyze growth in communities served by the South Shore Line," said Michael Noland, NICTD president and CEO.

"This project is uniquely positioned to move forward with federal support because our exemplary partnership model includes local and state investment."

The Double Track project adds a second track to a 17-mile stretch of the existing South Shore Line between Gary and Michigan City, allowing for more two-way and express travel, and potentially reducing the commute time to Chicago from Michigan City to 60 minutes, and 90 minutes from South Bend.

It also includes station and parking improvements at five South Shore stations, relocates street-running track in Michigan City and eliminates 21 road-rail crossings. The South Shore Line already is double-tracked between Gary and Chicago.

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"By increasing our connectivity to Chicago, the third-largest metro area in the country, commuter rail will drive job creation and economic development in Northwest Indiana," said Bill Hanna, president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

The new state budget, House Enrolled Act 1001, increases the state's share of Double Track costs to $179 million, a move endorsed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb in light of the anticipated federal grant reduction.

The RDA is paying $36.5 million, and LaPorte and St. Joseph counties, which aren't RDA members, each are contributing $18.25 million, along with $3.2 million in project development expenses, according to data presented to the State Budget Committee.

Double Track is the second major South Shore project to recently move from the planning stage toward implementation.

Last year, the Federal Transit Administration awarded a "medium-high" rating to the $816 million West Lake expansion that will bring the South Shore Line from a new gateway station in Hammond eight miles south to Dyer.

NICTD's schedule calls for West Lake construction to begin in May 2020, with commuter service starting in March 2024.

Altogether, Double Track and West Lake are projected to attract approximately $2.3 billion in private investment to Northwest Indiana, create more than 6,000 new jobs and provide $3 billion in economic impact by 2048, according to the RDA.

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