Chesterton Tribune

 

 

NICTD hears plans to expand South Shore use with new routes and upgraded stations

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By PAULENE POPARAD

Should the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District follow development, or have a hand in leading development itself?

According to transit consultant Kenneth Kinney of URS Corporation, the answer is both.

He outlined a preliminary plan Friday for $179.6 million in capital projects over the next 20 years so the South Shore railroad can expand its service territory, decrease travel times and upgrade its overall passenger experience.

The region’s steel mills may have employed 60,000 people decades ago, but today it’s only 7,000, said Kinney. Chicago is where the jobs are and Northwest Indiana is in competition with Illinois collar counties to get them.

Moving greater numbers of Indiana passengers to downtown Chicago will require a 20-year investment of about $885 million for South Shore asset replacement and improvements like new train cars, computerized train control and double tracking; station and/or realignment projects in South Bend, Michigan City, Portage/Ogden Dunes and Gary would cost an additional $180 million.

Kinney said there is an underserved commuter market in the Michiana area ripe for growth, and Dune Park station on U.S. 12 would play a role in major ridership gains in Porter County.

The strategic plan, still in development, includes a $615 million, Phase 1 West Lake extension of the South Shore to St. John over 2018- 2022 creating new service and development potential in the Hammond/Munster/Dyer corridor. A future West Lake Phase 2 from St. John to Cedar Lake and Lowell is identified but not scheduled. An originally discussed extension to Valparaiso is not listed.

Kinney said NICTD isn’t the only player in the smart-growth game.

The hope is political backing, public/private partnerships and popular support can rally around new transit-oriented, multi-modal developments within one-half mile of South Shore stations to boost regional employment and expand local business opportunities.

What state/federal funding, passenger revenue and NICTD contractual income doesn’t cover in the strategic plan will have to be picked up from local sources in NICTD’s four-county service territory.

URS principal planner Jennifer McNeil Dhadwal said although some are new and innovative in Northwest Indiana, typical supplemental funding sources include county-option income taxes, a wheel tax, and a local gas or sales tax, the latter on food and beverage or lodging.

After the meeting Porter County Commissioner John Evans was asked if county taxpayers would support a wheel, gas or sales tax for the South Shore. “I don’t know. I don’t think some are too palatable but a food-and-beverage tax is in other places and people don’t even know they’re paying it.”

Porter County Council member Sylvia Graham told the Chesterton Tribune a food-and-beverage tax would be hurtful to the population. “I am not for any new taxes. It has to be out-of-the-box thinking.” She said one of her main goals is that the railroad’s existing track remains in good repair with improvements.

NICTD chairman LaPorte County Council member Mark Yagelski asked which transit taxes are more accepted by the public.

Dhadwal said a sales tax, which is easier to adopt, can be structured to exclude certain purchases and would be paid by tourists also. Even a small sales tax can generate significant income, she added.

Graham asked Dhadwal what specific Gary project is contemplated in the strategic plan.

Dhadwal said that would be a topic for negotiation but being considered are upgrades/operation of both the current downtown station and the Miller station, or at a consolidated new station at Interstate 65; both have pros and cons, she explained, and there’s no obvious choice at this time.

NICTD is sharing the cost of the URS study, which will be completed next year, with the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. RDA executive director Bill Hanna said the average salary for commuters going into the Loop is $84,000 and Chicago’s a global market Indiana residents can tap. “We can’t move Michigan City closer to Chicago, but we can make it faster to get there.”

Hanna noted it will take courage by NICTD board members to be creative and get the job done.

Dhadwal said it will be necessary to communicate to the public the need for creating new South Shore passenger markets and growing existing ones; cooperation also is needed with multiple governments and agencies to incorporate rail expansion into their own land-use plans.

 

Posted 11/25/2013