Chesterton Tribune                                                                                   Adv.

Fare hike coming for South Shore passengers

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By VICKI URBANIK

With scant public opposition, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District on Friday approved a 2 percent fare hike, to take effect on June 1 of this year and next, for passengers of the South Shore commuter service.

The NICTD Board also adjusted its family fare policy, so that only one child per adult -- not two -- may ride for free on off-peak weekday, weekend and holiday trains. Further, the NICTD Board designated the weekday train that leaves Chicago at 3:58 p.m. as a rush-hour train.

The rate hike and policy changes are a reaction to declining ridership, which has resulted in a $1.2 million decrease in farebox revenues. Through February, total ridership was down 5.5 percent, with the average weekday passengers down 3 percent and weekend and holiday ridership down nearly 11 percent, which NICTD has attributed to a continued weak economy.

NICTD estimates that the fare hike could bring in $200,000 in extra revenue this year, with the other two changes potentially generating another $165,000.

NICTD officials took note of the little opposition expressed at the five public hearings that were held on the fare hike proposal in mid-March. NICTD Board President Mark Yagelski said that at the Michigan City hearing, not only was there no opposition, but there was also a sentiment by some who said they can understand why an increase is needed.

The public hearings were attended by 14 people, with another 18 emails and correspondence received.

The last fare increase for NICTD passengers was also a two-year, 2 percent increase enacted in 2006 and ‘07.

The fare hike and policy changes were approved by the NICTD board unanimously, 7-0, with member John Evans absent.

The change involving Train 11, which departs Chicago at 3:58 p.m. on weekdays, stems from a longstanding concern among commuters. Because this train has been considered an off-peak train, up to two children per adult have been able to ride for free. But NICTD General Manager Gerald Hanas said many regular commuters do take this early train home and have raised concerns that seats are occupied by non-paying passengers.

Improvements Coming

Also Friday, the NICTD Board approved several bids, the largest of which involve the Kensington Interlocking improvement project and the Hobart Bridge replacement.

The Kensington project was originally estimated by NICTD’s engineering consultants to cost just under $1.7 million, but the two bids received came in about 35 percent higher. The low bid, from Aldridge Electric, totaled $2.2 million.

NICTD Board member Robert Kovach questioned if the NICTD Board should rebid the project, but Hanas said the fact the bids came in over budget were more the result of an underestimation by the engineers. The Kensington project will involve a complex set of circumstances: With more than 107 passenger trains and 20-plus freight trains daily, the construction will be tedious, as workers will have to work around the train schedule. He said the engineers didn’t take into account the lack of production time and the need for overtime hours.

Hanas also said the NICTD Board has been discussing the Kensington project for about 10 years and that if the work gets postponed now, the same complexities with the work production will exist and the prices will likely increase.

The Kensington bypass project will provide a second NICTD route through the Kensington Interlocking, providing additional operating windows for NICTD trains. The project required a three-part agreement between NICTD, Metra and the CN railroad.

The board unanimously awarded the bid to Aldridge Electric.

Speaking from the audience later in the meeting, South Shore passenger Bernard Hollicky of Chesterton said that in addition to the catenary and signaling improvements, the Kensington project is the “next best thing” toward making long-term improvements in the South Shore service.

In another bid award, the NICTD board awarded a bid of just over $1 million to Illinois Constructors for the Hobart bridge replacement. The firm offered the lowest of seven bids received.

In this case, the project came in under budget, with the original engineering projection of $1.5 million over-estimating the steel prices.

The Hobart bridge was originally constructed in 1907 and refurbished in 1986. Although the bridge may look in good shape, Hanas noted: “Paint can do a lot of things.”

New Gary Station?

Also Friday, Hanas announced that an earlier proposal for a new Gary station near I-65 and U.S. 20 has been revived. The proposal would involve consolidating the existing Gary stations, including the one in the Miller section of Gary.

Hanas said the 12-acre I-65 site would be ideal for NICTD, which has found that improved stations, coupled with adequate parking and highway access, boosts ridership. He said the new station would result in a superior facility, not just for Gary commuters but also for those from communities to the south.

He also noted that the downtown Gary station accounts for 9 percent of the total daily ridership, while the Miller station contributes another 7 percent.

The proposal, however, prompted a strong negative reaction from audience member Jim Nowacki of Miller. He called the consolidation a “terrible” plan and said he doesn’t want the Miller station to be blamed for train delays along the line. At one point, after Nowacki criticized Hanas personally and accused the board of already making the decision, Yagelski gaveled the conversation to a close.

Several NICTD Board members made it clear that before any station consolidation is finalized, the board will hold public hearings and fully review the proposal. “To assume it has all been decided is just not true,” Graham said.

In another matter, the board heard a request from the owners of Roxxy’s Bar in Miller who asked the board to allow bar patrons to park in NICTD spots along U.S. 20; NICTD attorney Chuck Lukmann said the board could be opening the doors to any other third party that wants to use NICTD reserve parking lots. The matter was taken under advisement.

 

 

 Posted 3/29/2010

 

 

 

 

 

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