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NICTD to expand Westlake Southshore line studies; screens Visclosky video in support

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By PAULENE POPARAD

The South Shore railroad is finalizing a strategic business plan that includes extending passenger service to Munster and Dyer by 2022, and several parts of the Westlake puzzle are falling into place.

Directors of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District learned Thursday that requests for proposals have gone out to do a Phase1 environmental-impact study along the route.

NICTD general manager Gerald Hanas said he hopes to bring a recommendation in March which consultant to hire.

Hanas also said 1st District U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky is pushing hard for Westlake to be approved for federal New-Starts money to fund up to 50 percent of the $600 million cost.

Visclosky director of communications Celina Weatherwax previewed a new promotional video featuring Visclosky and others touting Westlakeís benefits. Weatherwax said the congressman is a passionate advocate for the opportunities and companion economic development Westlake will bring.

Calling it a generational imperative in the video, Visclosky said Northwest Indiana needs a sense of urgency today because people failed to act in the past.

He also said Westlake will help keep the regionís best and brightest young people here rather than losing them to areas with good transportation access to higher-paying jobs.

The strategic business plan, jointly funded by NICTD and the Northwest Regional Development Authority, will include overall investment strategies for the next 20 years including several upgrades along the current South Bend-to-Chicago route to boost ridership. These include phased purchase of 58 new passenger cars and station contruction/improvements.

Impacting NICTDís 2014 budget and beyond is continued implementation of positive train control, an unfunded federal safety mandate that Hanas said likely wonít meet its nationwide Dec. 31, 2015 deadline. PTC could cost the South Shore $45 million; the system requires development of new technologies between trains, trackside and centralized traffic control to stop trains before an accident occurs.

The NICTD board, with member Porter County Commissioner John Evans among those absent, approved a 2014 South Shore business plan showing a net deficit thatís covered by state and federal subsidies. At 66 percent the largest portion of NICTDís total $40.2 million expenses, less depreciation, are salaries, wages and fringe benefits.

The 2014 plan anticipates flat operating revenue, the same levels of service and no fare increase although that depends on whether Metra in Illinois raises its fares.

NICTD director of marketing John Parsons said 2013 South Shore ridership dipped 1.7 percent compared to 2012 resulting in 3,606,926 passengers last year. Most of that drop occurred on off-peak and weekend trains. Metra posted a 2.1 percent ridership drop through November, Parsons noted.

As well as the sluggish job market in and around Chicago, he added, poor weather and other factors held down attendance at major 2013 events there that typically draw more South Shore riders.

Although 2013ís last quarter saw a positive trend in rush-hour ridership, said Parsons, this Januaryís weather has been brutal compared to last year. Hanas thanked passengers and employees for their patience.

Well received, said NICTD officials, have been email and text alerts started in August notifying passengers of delayed trains. So far 2,484 have subscribed with 1,000 alone signing up Jan. 5-7.

The NICTD board split Thursday when discussing renewal of a $135,000 contract with AC Incorporated of Valparaiso to handle South Shore social media, website hosting and paid-media advertising. Contract consideration was tabled after member Michael Repay, a Lake County Commissioner, raised questions.

He said ridership word of mouth is free and sometimes more valuable than paid advertising. NICTD and LaPorte County Council member Mark Yagelski said more advertising could have been done there, some of it at no cost.

 

 

Posted 1/24/2014