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WATCH NOW: Double Track groundbreaking: 'Truly a Hoosier moment in history like few others'

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MICHIGAN CITY — The repeated ping of sledgehammers on railroad spikes is a noise seemingly out of the past.

But it’s also the sound of Northwest Indiana’s future as the Region seeks to tie itself more closely to Chicago — the third-largest economy in the United States.

On a brilliantly sunny morning, a host of elected officials and other dignitaries each took a few whacks at railroad spikes Monday near the site of what soon will be an $80 million, 12-story mixed-use development in downtown Michigan City, featuring a restored historic train station, 208 luxury apartments, more than 10,000 square feet of commercial space and a 558-space parking garage.

It wasn’t your typical groundbreaking. But the double tracking of the South Shore Line isn’t your typical project.

The $650 million initiative will speed travel from Northwest Indiana to Chicago by adding 18 miles of new commuter rail track to the current one-track line between Gary and Michigan City, eliminate street-running tracks in Michigan City, remove 22 at-grade crossings, upgrade platforms at five stations and create more than 1,400 parking spaces.

Double Track construction began in March. Once complete, in early 2024, Michigan City will be about a 60-minute train ride from Chicago, roughly the same as Naperville, Illinois, opening the door for significant new residential and commercial development along the rail corridor and beyond.

“We are absolutely positioned for growth, and this project, in my opinion, will help unlock the value proposition that is Northwest Indiana,” said Mike Noland, South Shore Line president and general manager.

“Naperville doesn’t have Lake Michigan, doesn’t have our lower cost of living, doesn’t have our incredible property tax system, doesn’t have our national and state park and certainly doesn’t have our balance sheet.”

Areas around each station along the current South Shore Line and the $945 million West Lake Corridor, set to open in 2025 between Hammond and Dyer, have been designated as Transit Development Districts (TDDs).

Growth in the value of tax revenue generated in those districts will be used to support transit-oriented residential and commercial projects.

Sherri Ziller, president and CEO of the TDD-overseeing Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, expects the Region will see upwards of $2 billion in private investment, and thousands of new jobs and residents, accompanying the federal, state and local government funds going into the South Shore Line projects.

“With these districts the RDA will be able to help fund major public improvement projects and development, and really speed up that return on investment to both Northwest Indiana and the state overall,” Ziller said.

“The next few years are going to very interesting, they’re going to be very busy, and most of all, they’re going to be very successful for Northwest Indiana.”

State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, said he envisions TDD growth and opportunities tied to the South Shore Line in Gary’s Miller neighborhood, a new Metro Center station in downtown Gary and new affordable housing opportunities throughout the Steel City.

“This will surely help grow our population and economic development,” Melton said.

Perhaps no one was more excited about the growth opportunities associated with Double Track and West Lake than Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb.

The Republican has made the long-sought projects a centerpiece of his state infrastructure agenda and poured hundreds of millions of dollars in additional state resources into them when the federal government reduced its traditional transit funding share during the administration of Republican former President Donald Trump.

Holcomb urged the state legislators, local elected officials, business leaders and Region residents gathered at the 11th Street Station for the Double Track groundbreaking to take a picture of the site and nearby neighborhood because it’s soon all going to be changing for the better.

“Today has been a long time coming. But it’s finally here,” Holcomb said. “This is truly a Hoosier moment in history like few others.”

“This is not talk any longer, we are building. This is not rhetoric, this is results. And it’s the good kind of results that happen when people come together focused on a goal and they understand the transformation that can occur with that synergy.”

Holcomb emphasized that Northwest Indiana has a location like no other, blessed with natural beauty and so close to the economic opportunities available in Chicago.

He said linking those two things together along the South Shore Line is certain to pay dividends in myriad ways for decades to come, including economic growth, talent development and residential and commercial investments.

“All these pieces are snapping together. It’s a really special time to be a Hoosier and be involved in a project like this,” Holcomb said. “This is a win-win on all fronts.”

U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., said credit belongs not just to those currently representing Northwest Indiana in local government offices, at the Statehouse and in Congress but also to those who came before and led the way, especially former U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, and former U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind, now U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

“A lot of work occurred before I came into the picture,” Young said. “I invited our (former) Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to have a look at this project and she bought in. She absolutely bought in. She marveled at the stakeholder involvement and input and preparation to receive the requisite funds.”

“Today is the touchdown celebration, if you will, and I am just really excited about how people will come here to work, play, live, pray and visit once we build out these two remarkable projects.”

State Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, who spearheaded the TDD legislation at the General Assembly, likewise said of the South Shore projects, "I look forward to seeing the positive impact it makes on our community's development in the future as hundreds of millions of dollars have already been committed."

The groundbreaking ceremony was delayed about 45 minutes because of Young’s late arrival.

There also was a small group of protesters who objected to LaPorte County declining to designate the new federal holiday of Juneteenth, which was observed Monday, as a paid day off for county employees.

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If you’re looking for high quality of life, low cost of living, a pro-business climate and an outdoor environment sporting Great Lakes beauty, Northwest Indiana belongs at the top of your list.

Officials continue to work on plans for the transit-oriented development, or TOD, that is hoped will bring a significant part of the investment and population the rail projects are expected to generate.

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