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WATCH NOW: South Shore projects, years in the making, cross the starting line in 2020
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WATCH NOW: South Shore projects, years in the making, cross the starting line in 2020

From the WATCH NOW: Region Rising series

The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District’s early years were dedicated to saving passenger rail service between South Bend and Chicago. The line that hugged the southern shore of Lake Michigan, passing through its urban core before entering the Duneland and open space to South Bend, faced the end of passenger service in early 1977.

But the state was given a chance to save the service, and legislation signed by Gov. Otis Bowen in April allowed formation of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, a four-county commuter rail authority, to support passenger rail service in St. Joseph, LaPorte, Porter and Lake counties.

A dozen years later, NICTD took direct operational control of the railroad. It has spent an ever-increasing amount of its time since then planning, and now implementing, infrastructure investments intended to continue its expansion as a commuter line.

Those plans, for a new West Lake Corridor and for a double-tracking modernization of the existing line, reached critical turning points during a 10-week period in late 2020 and early 2021.

The projects are intended to connect commuters and recreation-seekers more conveniently to Chicago, by extending rail service southward, by quickening current trips to and from the city, and by opening opportunities for development around stations.

'Expansion and recapitalization'

The state took action in 1991 to make the West Lake Corridor possible — the multi-county rail line would now be allowed to build and operate new rail lines in only one county. By 1996 U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky had secured funding for a study of Lowell-to-Chicago South Shore service, and in 1998 NICTD hosted a public hearing on that possibility. The studying continued, next with a local agreement in 2004 to study extending the South Shore to both Valparaiso and Lowell.

In ensuing years, the projects, as they exist today, took firmer form. By the summer of 2013, NICTD and Michigan City had reached a consensus on realigning the South Shore tracks in Michigan, a crucial aspect of Double Track.

The selected “Central Corridor” option would the existing path of the South Shore, as desired by the city, but would include the addition of a second set of tracks, removing the single track running in the middle of the street, where it had run since 1908, as desired by the railroad.

A NICTD illustration shows a possible design for the Miller South Shore station after completion of the Double Track project.

"We recognize their economic development desires and they recognized our operational desires,” said Gerald Hanas, NICTD general manager. “There had to be a lot of negotiations and give and take. We believe it can work.”

In September of that year, at the annual meeting of the civic organization One Region, Visclosky urged local governments and the Indiana General Assembly to find sources of funding for expanded transit, including the “extension and recapitalization” of the South Shore Line — which meant, respectively, the West Lake Corridor and Double Track.

An elevated section of the West Lake Corridor through Hammond is shown in this NICTD rendering.

Visclosky offered his charge succinctly: “Go build it.”

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, delivers comments via a prepared video message for the Oct. 28 groundbreaking ceremony of the West Lake Corr…

Timeline

2014-2015

Lake County and 15 of its municipalities pledge a portion of their income tax revenue, for a period of 30 years, to the West Lake Corridor. Hammond would add its commitment in 2017.

May 2015

Gov. Mike Pence signs two bills impacting the South Shore: House Enrolled Act 1398, which requires the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority to engage in projects building the Region's transportation, transit and lakeshore infrastructure, and House Enrolled Act 1001, which provides the RDA $6 million a year for 30 years to help pay for the West Lake Corridor project.

May 2016

Double Track enters the project development phase of the Federal Transit Administration’s Core Capacity grant program.

September 2016

The Federal Transit Administration approves the West Lake Corridor's entry into the project development phase of the Capital Investment Grant program, the first phase on the path to a New Starts grant to fund a portion of the project.

September 2016

The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority publishes an update to its Comprehensive Strategic Plan detailing the potential economic impact of the West Lake Corridor and Double Track NWI projects.

December 2016

NICTD and the FTA post the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the West Lake Corridor. The document provides details of the project's potential impact on the natural and social environment.

April 2017

Gov. Eric Holcomb signs two bills benefiting the South Shore projects: House Enrolled Act 1001, which provides $6 million per year for the next 30 years to the Double Track project, and House Enrolled Act 1144, providing for the formation of transit development districts around current and future South Shore stations. The bill provides that incremental increases in property and income taxes within the districts will go to an RDA-managed fund to help promote development around the stations.

"This is not just about economic development, but equally importantly it's also about attracting talent from the nation's third biggest economy in Chicago, and getting folks to move to this side of the border."

— Gov. Eric Holcomb

June 2017

St. Joseph County commissioners approve just over $18 million as the county’s share of the Double Track project.

August 2017

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao visits the South Bend International Airport at the invitation of U.S. Sen. Todd Young to discuss the South Shore projects with NICTD and RDA leaders. Governor Eric Holcomb and U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky are also in attendance.

U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., greets U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, while Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority Pres…

"Suffice it to say that the bipartisan nature and the public-private partnership aspects of any project would be ones that are important to us."

— U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao

March 2018

The FTA publishes the Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision for the West Lake Corridor project, completing the project's environmental study.

July-August 2018

NICTD, the RDA, the Indiana Finance Authority and the State Budget Committee approve a finance plan and governance agreement for the West Lake Corridor, locking in the state and local financing and detailing the responsibilities of each party involved in the project.

November 2018

The federally required Environmental Assessment for Double Track receives a Finding of No Significant Impact, finalizing the environmental study of the project.

February 2019

NICTD withdraws the Double Track project from the Core Capacity program due to ridership projections that did not meet the grant program’s requirements.

March 2019

The West Lake Corridor receives a "medium high" rating from the FTA, the second highest rating on a five-level scale. Projects are required to earn at least a "medium" rating to advance in the grant process.

April 2019

Gov. Eric Holcomb signs into law a state budget that includes up to $205 million in additional state funding for the South Shore's capital projects. The law also reduces the size of the NICTD Board of Trustees, and makes the commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation its chairperson.

"We are moving full steam ahead on the South Shore Line, full steam ahead in terms of the West Lake expansion. This is another major step forward in terms of attracting talent from one of the biggest economies in the country — Chicagoland."

— Gov. Eric Holcomb

"I think we're as competitive as we possibly can be on a national level, and this gives the Indiana delegation in Washington all the tools they need to help us get the project done," Hanna said.

— Regional Development Authority CEO Bill Hanna

June 2019

NICTD, the RDA, the Indiana Finance Authority and the State Budget Committee approve the finance plan for Double Track and update governance agreement detailing responsibilities for the projects.

August 2019

Michigan City makes a commitment of just over $12 million to Double Track. With LaPorte County’s commitment of $6 million, the county’s commitment is complete.

October 2019

The FTA advances the West Lake Corridor project to the engineering phase of the Capital Investment Grant program, the final phase before negotiation of a full-funding grant agreement.

January 2020

The NICTD Board of Trustees authorizes railroad management to enter into negotiations with a joint venture of Chicago-based companies F.H. Paschen and Ragnar Benson to complete design work and undertake construction of the West Lake Corridor. The companies made one of two proposals to do the work.

February 2020

Double Track is reentered into the Capital Investment Grant program as a New Starts grant project, in its engineering phase, with a medium-high rating on the Federal Transit Administration’s scale.

July 2020

NICTD approves an agreement with F.H. Paschen and Ragnar Benson to complete design work and lead construction of the West Lake Corridor. The contract would pay the joint venture almost $555 million to complete the project.

October 2020

The FTA and NICTD, along with the state of Indiana and Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, enter into a full-funding grant agreement formalizing a New Starts grant committing approximately $354 million to the $945 million West Lake Corridor project. By the end of the 2020 fiscal year, the U.S. Congress had already appropriated $100 million in New Starts money to the project. NICTD hopes to complete the project in 2025.

“This vision wasn’t just rhetoric. It’s reality. This is one of those ‘all aboard’ moments.”

— Gov. Eric Holcomb

“Today is an historic day for this railroad, 30 years in the making.”

— NICTD President Michael Noland

"This is an important moment in the history of Northwest Indiana. Let it not pass without a commitment to do more.”

— U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky

January 2021

NICTD and its partners enter into a full-funding grant agreement with the FTA for the Double Track project, through which the FTA will pay about $173 million of the $494 million cost of the project. NICTD expects to complete the project in 2024.

“Combined with our recent announcement on the West Lake Corridor project, double tracking the South Shore line will connect Hoosiers, attract talent and business, and increase quality of life in our great Indiana communities.”

— Gov. Eric Holcomb

“Reduced travel time and more frequent service options have been top priorities for those who rely on South Shore Line service."

— NICTD President Michael Noland

"This is the kind of success, positive momentum and strong leadership that creates confidence in our market. This is also a clear recognition of the value of Indiana’s gateway to Chicago and its future.”

— Regional Development Authority CEO Bill Hanna

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