Construction is poised to begin in October on the eight-mile West Lake extension of the South Shore commuter rail line between Hammond and Dyer, notwithstanding the coronavirus pandemic.
South Shore Line President Mike Noland told board members of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission Wednesday the South Shore soon expects to finalize a grant agreement with the Federal Transit Administration that will move the long-sought project to the final stage of development.
"We are on a fast track to receive a full-funding grant agreement from the FTA. Our target for that is the end of September, and we're working diligently to make that happen," Noland said.
"Construction would immediately start, would finish up in late 2024, and we'd start revenue service in early 2025."
The potential $355 million federal Capital Improvement Grant would round out funding for the estimated $933 million West Lake project, which also is financially supported by the state of Indiana and many Region communities.
Noland said the strong backing of the state and local governments, along with plans to construct transit-oriented developments in special taxing districts adjacent to the new stations, has distinguished the West Lake project in the eyes of federal transit officials.
"The FTA is keenly aware of what we're doing with the Transit Development Districts and that the local support is tied to the transit-oriented development growth," Noland said.
"So those are some key things that separate our projects from other projects around the country, and has really fast-tracked us ... through their system."
Noland said the rail project also got another boost when President Donald Trump unexpectedly tweeted in May that the U.S. Department of Transportation was providing a $100 million advance on the expected full-funding grant agreement for West Lake.
"That was a very big shot in the arm for the project," Noland said.
The new commuter rail line will run from the Illinois-Indiana border in north Hammond, eight miles down the Monon corridor to Main Street on the Munster/Dyer border, just west of Columbia Avenue.
There will be four stations: A new Hammond Gateway Station located about three blocks west of the city's current South Shore station, a second Hammond station at 173rd Street, a station at Ridge Road in Munster, and a station adjacent to the final stop at Main Street.
Noland said there will be 12 daily through trips — six in the morning (five into Chicago and one outbound), and six in the evening (five outbound, one inbound) — along with 12 off-peak trips connecting to the existing South Shore Line at the Hammond Gateway Station.
The commute time in the 32 fully refurbished stainless steel West Lake rail cars will be 14 minutes from Munster/Dyer to Hammond Gateway, and a total of 47 minutes to Millennium Station in downtown Chicago, Noland said.
Plans show each station will have parking, drop-off areas, pedestrian and bicycle access, and extensive landscaping — "Everything is designed with sustainability in mind," Noland said.
The South Shore already has acquired 100 of the 157 privately-owned properties needed for the project, with very few requiring condemnation.
"The Federal Relocation Act is very beneficial to property owners. We've been treating them very fairly," he said.
Noland also said planning and preparations for the West Lake project have not negatively been impacted by COVID-19, even though ridership on the existing South Shore Line between Chicago and South Bend only is at 17% of pre-pandemic levels — triple last month's ridership.
"COVID-19 is not slowing down our projects at all," he said. "We are deemed essential projects, both our day-to-day activity and the project development activity. So we have not had any COVID-19 slowdowns to date."
The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, which operates the South Shore Line, also is continuing to move forward with design plans for double tracking the current rail line between Gary and Michigan City to speed commutes to and from Chicago.
Nicole Barker, manager of the Double Track NWI project, said NICTD anticipates applying for a federal grant commitment in March 2021, with approval and the start of construction planned for July 2021, and double-tracked service beginning in late September 2023.
Once completed, she said travel times to downtown Chicago are expected to drop from 1 hour, 9 minutes at Gary's Miller station to 50 minutes on a regular train and just 43 minutes on an express.
Standard service from Portage/Ogden Dunes and Dune Park will be an hour or less, while the current 1 hour, 41 minute trip from 11th Street in Michigan City will shrink to 1 hour, 15 minutes on a regular train and only 67 minutes on an express.
Gallery: 25 South Shore Line Excursions
South Shore Excursions: The Field Museum
Facing the 11th Street museum campus exit, The Field Museum is Chicago's natural history museum, complete with miniature figures in dioramas and masterpieces of taxidermy.
Sue the T. Rex is showcased in the Great Hall and Titans of the Ice Age is another popular attraction in the permanent collection. Special exhibits showcase The Vikings, Ancient Egypt and the Evolving Planet. There are also ticketed events and 3-D movies.
The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets have pricing starting at $15 and going up to $31 for an all-inclusive day-long pass.
South Shore Excursions: Northerly Island
At the top of the Roosevelt Road stairway exit from the Van Buren stop facing east, Northerly Island is at the far eastern point on a 91- acre peninsula pointed into Lake Michigan. Much of the island is unspoiled with hiking paths and places to fish.
During the summer, the field house at Northerly Island is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. If you have questions or seek to learn more about the history of this area, the staff is on hand to help or possibly arrange a tour. Relatively new at Northerly is the venue, FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island which opened in 2007.
The facility was upgraded recently and has more seating capacity with a lawn that can accommodate 30,000 people. Past concerts include Jim Gaffigan's "Contagious," The Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson perform in The End Times Tour.
South Shore Excursions: Hyde Park Arts Center
Several miles from the 57th Street stop on the South Shore train, the Hyde Park Arts Center, a place known for sparking a number of contemporary arts movements in the 1970s including Chicago Imagists and Hairy Who, continues to exhibit creative work.
For more information about the Hyde Park Art Center schedule and hours, visit the website at www.hydeparkart.org.
South Shore Excursions: Downtown Michigan City
The 11th St. South Shore stop in Michigan City is a short distance from downtown and a wide range of activities including shopping, galleries and the Lubeznik Arts Center.
The lakefront setting is also the location for one of LaPorte County's first award-winning craft breweries. Shoreline Brewery, across the street from LAC, at 208 S. Wabash St., is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to midnight.
The brewery has a dozen beers on tap, among them Beltaine Scottish Ale, winner of the World Beer Cup as well as Singing Sand Oatmeal Stout. Samuel Jackson's Black IPA, Bavarian Bombshell Black Lager and Barrel Aged Imperial Stout Lost Sailor are available on a seasonal basis. In recent years, Shoreline has developed a reputation beyond first-class pub food like burgers and mac 'n cheese.
Learn more about Shoreline Brewery by visiting shorelinebrewery.com or phone at 219-TRY-HOPS.
South Shore Excursions: Bartlett’s Gourmet Grill & Tavern
You can’t miss the pink art deco train depot near the corner of Broadway and U.S. 12 in Beverly Shores. If you head east about a quarter mile, you will be at Bartlett’s Gourmet Grill & Tavern.
The outdoor deck is enclosed by a beautiful wooded area set back from the Indiana Dunes and the Lake Michigan coast. The menu is filled with such unique options as "Chicken Under a Brick" and your inner beer connoisseur can delight in some of the finest craft beer the area has to offer.
The amped-up roadhouse is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays. The menus offers a complete appetizer, salad, soup and entrée menu — weekend brunch is a particular favorite — that includes such specialties of the house. Those include as five-hour pot roast, macaroni and (multiple) cheeses, dry-spice rubbed baby back ribs and Rockefeller filet mignon. The outdoor deck is one of the most beautiful spots in the woods that line the Lake Michigan coast in Northwest Indiana.
All that food should provide more than enough energy to power a two-mile trek north to the Dunes and Michigan City's cove beach.
South Shore Excursions: Millennium Park
Millennium Park in Chicago is a treasure unto itself with all of its gardens, unique architecture, art installations and views of the downtown skyline.
The park really comes alive in the late spring and summer with concerts, film screenings and outdoor dining. In the winter, you can skate around the public ice rink or tour through the lighted walkways.
Oh yeah, and there's always "The Bean."
South Shore Excursions: The Oriental Institute at University of Chicago
One of Chicago’s most often cited “hidden gems,” this museum is a short trip from the 57th Street stop. Besides the many adult, children and family programs-designed for budding and amateur archeologists-the permanent galleries include excavations from ancient Egypt, Nubia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia and the ancient site of Megiddo.
The Oriental Institute is open every day except Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday the museum is open until 8 p.m. Admission is free, but there is a suggested donation of $10 for adults and $5 for children under 12. To plan a visit, please go to oi.uchicago.edu/visit
South Shore Excursions: Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership
Head south from the exit of the Van Buren station for several blocks and you will come to the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership at 610 S. Michigan.
The Spertus is an architectural wonder in itself. The building's glass facade, part of the design by Krueck & Sexton Architects in 2007, controls heat gain and glare but it is the 6,700 square-foot green roof that does the heavy lifting, managing stormwater, cleaning the air and keeping Spertus cool in summer.
Inside the Spertus is a school, library and gallery.
South Shore Excursions: Lookingglass Theatre
The Lookingglass Theatre is several Magnificent Miles north of the Randolph Street stop of the South Shore line. The walk is a temptation-filled journey with dozens of great stores to shop before you get to the theater (Nordstrom's, Crate & Barrel and Apple are just a few.)
This small theater company has a big reputation and is usually home to a current hit. The theater is a site in itself, an historic water tower building re-purposed for an intimate, live experience perfectly suited for the staging of this poetic tale.
For more information, visit lookingglasstheatre.org.
South Shore Excursions: University of Chicago books
The Hyde Park neighborhood and University of Chicago campus have four bookstores within walking distance of the 57th Street stop on the South Shore line.
The Seminary Co-op Bookstore, at 5751 S. Woodlawn, was started in 1961 by book lovers in the neighborhood willing to make a small investment to create an independent bookstore. It now has more than 100,000 titles across a wide range of subjects, specializing in the humanities and social sciences.
57th Street Books, a part of the Seminary Co-op, at 57th and Kimbark, is a general interest store with many programs designed especially for children. To learn more about these two stores visit semcoop.com.
Even though the official University of Chicago Bookstore is actually a Barnes and Noble with a cafe, it displays books by faculty members, graduates or favorite Chicagoans. The spacious store also sells textbooks, branded memorabilia and school supplies.
Book lovers might also enjoy checking out Powells Books Chicago, the less-celebrated sibling of the glorious Powells Books in Portland, Oregon. No, it does not come close to matching the Portland experience, but what does?
South Shore Excursions: Lighthouse Place in Michigan City
Head towards the lakefront from Michigan City's 11th Street stop, just west of the downtown boutiques and galleries you will find an extensive outlet mall.
Lighthouse Place has about 200 stores in the mall and while you might not always find exactly what you are looking for, you could fall deeply in love with a sweater at Calvin Klein, mini-French casseroles at Le Creuset, a wardrobe of Travelers with matching accessories at Chico's, dressy flip-flops at Aldo's and Vera Bradley bags. After a sandwich at Subway or the new Pita Shack you can try the multiple men's wear stores — the most comprehensive group you will find at any mall — and a dozen shops that specialize in items for kids, including a wide selection of clothing from Under Armour to Old Navy's extensive Tween collection.
Don't miss the opportunity to visit the South Bend Chocolate Company with its vast array of sinfulness, the confectioner is known for the black chocolate cake it does better than any other baker on earth.
South Shore Excursions: Gage Gallery of Roosevelt University
Up the stairs and out the Michigan Avenue exit at the Van Buren stop you will find the Gage Gallery of Roosevelt University, just a couple of short blocks from the train station.
The university’s gallery space is dedicated to showcasing contemporary photography consonant with the school’s ideals of social justice. Among those featured in past exhibits are internationally known photographers Eugene Richards, Noor’s Nina Berman and Jon Lowenstein, Edmund Clark, Milton Rogovin and VII’s Jessica Dimmock.
Three years ago, the exhibition "Above the Fold, 10 Decades of Chicago Photojournalism" included work from several veteran photographers in the Chicagoland area, including former Times Photo Editor Mike Zajakowski.
Gage Gallery, 18 S. Michigan Ave., is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Find out more at roosevelt.edu/GageGallery.
South Shore Excursions: Adler Planetarium in Chicago
At the eastern point of the museum campus on Chicago's lakefront is the Adler Planetarium with the most amazing sky shows, all day and all year long.
The immersive sky shows are held in three full-sized theaters: the Definiti Theater, the recently renovated Samuel C. Johnson Family Star Theater, and the Grainger Sky Theater–the Adler's most technologically advanced theater. There are different types of tickets for visitors who want to stay all day or just for a few hours.
The Adler's regular hours are 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for the cafe. For more information, visit adlerplanetarium.org.
South Shore Excursions: Rockefeller Chapel
Perched above 57th Street, the Hyde Park train stop affords a west view of the University of Chicago campus and the spire of the famous Rockefeller Chapel.
On Sundays in the summer, you can tour the tower of the visually stunning chapel at 4:30 p.m. and then stay for the concert at 5 p.m. "The Bells of Summer," the Rockefeller Carillon Festival, is in its fifth decade with musicians from every continent in the world except Antarctica.
Visitors can take tours of the tower Mondays through Fridays from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. There is also a Sunday tour at 12:15 p.m. It's a 271-step climb to the top, so bring your big boy pants.
South Shore Excursions: Navy Pier
Pick a warm and sunny day for the trek from the Millennium Station at Randolph Street to Navy Pier.
There are numerous spots to get to the street below Michigan Avenue before or after the two-tier bridge over the Chicago River (The lower level is Wacker Dr.) But the first east-west street on the north side of the bridge is Illinois, the next is Grand Ave. That’s the street that takes you to the home of Chicago Shakespeare Theater and numerous restaurants including the expansive Riva, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, Harry Carey’s and Giordano’s.
There's also a brigade of touring and sightseeing vessels in many price ranges, several stunning art galleries, a giant Ferris wheel and fireworks each Wednesday and Saturday night during the summer. Navy Pier also has an IMAX theater with six screens and a mix of documentaries and 3D blockbusters. For more information, visit navypier.com.
South Shore Excursions: Shedd Aquarium in Chicago
Located near the Roosevelt Road station, Shedd Aquarium is a truly unique experience from the Abbott Oceanarium, home to dolphins, sharks and other massive fish, against the stunning Lake Michigan vista, to special exhibits like the current "Under Water Beauty."
The aquarium has been around since 1930, the brainchild of longtime Chicago resident John G. Shedd, who had risen from a stock boy to the president of Marshall Field & Company prior to his death in 1926 at age 76.
For more information, visit sheddaquarium.org.
South Shore Excursions: Indiana Dunes
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is free and an outdoor paradise offering fun for any season.
The lakeshore's 15 miles of beach is just a short walk from the Dune Park South Shore station, with the visitor center located at 1215 N. Ind. 49.
With more than 70 miles of trails, it is a birder's paradise that features more 350 migratory species. Anglers can also drop a line in the lake or simply take in the breathtaking vistas that can be found all over the park.
For more information, go to indianadunes.com or call (219) 395-1882.
South Shore Excursions: Museum of Science and Industry
Museum of Science and Industry will surprise you if you have not been there in a while.
There's several time-honored exhibits that every kid must visit at least once per summer: the coal mine; the Boeing-sponsored model train — it goes right through Northwest Indiana and the scenic dunes; hatching chicks; and the venerable U-505.
The mile walk from the South Shore stop at 57th Street should not be a problem, but be prepared to cover several more miles once you get inside.
Good advice is to take a break at the dynamite museum cafeteria with hot and cold food stations, do-it-yourself salads and multiple desserts.
For more information, tickets to special exhibits, times for programs and complete visit planning go to msichicago.org.
South Shore Excursions: Grant Park
Both train stops in downtown Chicago will put your just steps away from Grant Park's Hutchinson Field and the famous Buckingham Fountain.
The venue is home to the three-day Lollapalooza music festival that draws hundreds of thousands of fans each summer. This year, the event runs Aug. 2-5. The lineup features Bruno Mars, Jack White, The Weekend, Arctic Monkeys and many, many more.
The fountain sits dormant during the winter months before getting switched on in early May each year.
South Shore Excursions: U.S. Steel Yard
The U.S. Steel Yard, home to the Gary SouthShore Railcats, is one of the best minor league stadiums in the country and can be seen from the Gary Metro platform as you get off the train.
With a playground, Steely the Mascot, and 6,000 other folks, you cannot possibly be bored at the game. There is a fireworks show every Friday, and lots of special deals and promotions throughout the season.
With ticket prices at $10 or less, it's one of the best deals in the Chicagoland sports scene. For a look at this season's home schedule, which began May 18, visit railcatsbaseball.com.
South Shore Excursions: Washington Park Zoo
The Washington Park Zoo in Michigan City is a healthy walk from Michigan City’s 11th Street stop, but there are boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants along the way.
Early in the week, before the weekend crowds build, is an advantageous time to visit the 15-acre site in the dunes that hosts Washington Park.
The 660 animals from 70 species are in natural settings. Bengal tigers, American alligators, gray kangaroos, ring-tailed lemurs, river otters and bald eagles are among the displays. There is also Rotary Castle, home to cold-blooded creatures including lizards, snakes and frogs.
There's an aviary featuring more than 250 free flying parakeets and a farm exhibit housing miniature domestic horses, donkeys, pigs and goats.
The zoo opened April 1 with hours varying until the end of the season Nov. 1. For more information, visit washingtonparkzoo.com.
South Shore Excursions: Art Institute of Chicago
Just across the street from the Van Buren South Shore stop, is the second largest art museum in the U.S.
With 1 million square feet of space, the Art Institute of Chicago is known for its permanent collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist work, but also holds significant American art, old masters, Asian art, European and American decorative arts and architecture collections.
The Ryerson & Burnham Libraries' modern and contemporary art, along with works of photography, industrial and graphic design also are housed at the Art Institute, which was founded in 1866 as a free art school and gallery.
AIC is open from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, except Thursdays, when it is open until 8 p.m. The museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. General admission to the Art Institute of Chicago is free to Illinois residents from 5 to 8 p.m. every Thursday. For more info about AIC, to buy tickets, view maps or get directions, visit www.artic.edu/visit.
South Shore Excursions: Miller
Wonders await you when you disembark at the Miller station along the South Shore Line.
A short walk will land you at the popular 18th Street Brewery. Brew master Drew Fox started the successful business, which serves dozens of award-winning seasonal craft beers at the corner of Lake Street and Miller Avenue. More information can be found at 18thstreetbrewery.com.
Just north of the brewery, Miller Bakery Café serves up classic continental, as well as special and fresh seafood entrees, innovative seasonal cocktails and an extensive wine list. Visit millerbakerycafe.com for more info.
South Shore Excursions: Chicago Architecture Foundation River Tours
A must-see for visitors or Chicagoans, you can view the city's architectural wonders just a mile north of the Randolph Street Millennium Park end of the line station.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise has long been acclaimed and recommended because of the highly trained and certified CAF volunteer tour guides — called docents — who provide history and information about the more than 50 buildings you can see from the vantage point of the deck and cabin of the First Lady cruise boat.
The CAF boat docks at the southeast corner of the Michigan Avenue Bridge at Wacker Dr. There is a blue awning marking the stairway entrance to the boat. The tour is 90 minutes long.
Tours resume at the beginning of April and run all summer long. For more information, check out this link.
South Shore Excursions: South Bend
The South Shore train's end of the line stop is at the South Bend International Airport, but from there you can catch a Transpo bus that moves throughout the entire South Bend-Mishawaka area at regular intervals.
The campus of the University of Notre Dame is 16 minutes away and worth the ride, especially if you want to avoid the crazy traffic on gamedays.
There's plenty to see in South Bend, but the university is, of course, at the top of the list. The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Notre Dame Stadium, the golden dome, Touchdown Jesus... there are almost too many landmarks to name.