Chesterton Tribune

 

 

South Shore 20 year plan approved; next challenge to fund $1 billion cost

Back To Front Page

By PAULENE POPARAD

Unanimous adoption Friday of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District’s 20-year strategic business plan for the South Shore left one key aspect still unresolved: how will it be financed?

Speakers said despite a pricetag that exceeds $1 billion in investments, the transit improvements outlined are necessary to increase ridership, improve service, promote economic development and enhance quality of life.

It will be imperative, they stressed, to line up funding commitments from several sources to supplement federal grants.

Jennifer McNeil Dhadwal of consultant JRS Corporation in Chicago, which produced the 20-year study, said there can be a different set of funding and financing for each project but within the next 18 months money needs to be lined up so federal grant applications can advance.

After the meeting Kenneth Kinney of URS said there needs to be a sense of urgency now to get the conversation started for specific projects. “We have to make substantial progress. Do we have to have everything wrapped up, no".

NICTD board member and Lake County Commissioner Michael Repay said look to Indianapolis. “This is a northern Indiana effort but it certainly has benefits throughout the state. We need to drive that point home.” South Shore commuters pay sales, income and other Hoosier taxes, he noted.

Porter County has not made any funding commitments. Commissioner John Evans, a NICTD board member, said after Friday’s meeting that the county pays $3.5 million a year to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority so it’s already contributing through that assessment.

Funding for South Shore expansion and upgrades needs to be more of a regional effort coming from the RDA, whether through a regional tax or other avenue, and the State of Indiana really has to step up, said Evans.

NICTD member Sylvia Graham of the Porter County Council was absent.

Addressing the NICTD board, RDA executive director Bill Hanna said the RDA will continue to partner with NICTD because while investment in road infrastructure doesn’t guarantee a return, South Shore commuters who bring back salaries in excess of $80,000 a year from Chicago spend that money here where they live.

Hanna said the RDA is enthusiastic about transit-oriented development near South Shore stations to encourage economic growth and job creation. Lake County Council member Christine Cid of NICTD said private-sector funding for TOD partnerships should be encouraged.

TOD projects can cluster residential, retail, restaurant and service uses around South Shore stations and expand the market for them beyond just commuters.

Selling it to the public

NICTD’s David Decker, a LaPorte County Commissioner, said the district has to explain to the public what the 20-year plan proposes and justify what the South Shore needs.

A key 20-year plan component is the $571 million West Lake expansion of passenger service from Hammond to Dyer in south Lake County with trains beginning to run in late 2022 and daily ridership eventually projected to be 5,600 people.

Kinney said if there’s not a solid financial plan accompanying a West Lake request for federal new-starts funding, the application likely won’t even be reviewed.

The strategic plan also proposes capital improvements for new/existing South Shore stations. These include a $7 million high-boarding platform at the Portage/Ogden Dunes station in Porter County; a $109 million track realignment and station construction in Michigan City; a $15 million track realignment at the South Bend Regional Airport; and $52 million for a new Gary station near Interstate-65 or $38 million in upgrades to the existing Gary Metro and Miller stations.

An additional $421 million represents needed general capital improvements to keep the South Shore Line operating safely and efficiently, according to URS.

That spending would include $250 million for new train cars, $98 million to double-track the railroad between Gary and Michigan City where single track exists now, $30 million to build a second NICTD track into its platforms at Millennium Station in downtown Chicago, and $43 million to implement the federally mandated positive train control GPS-based safety system.

There’s also $401 million for required future South Shore maintenance such as bridge replacement, catenary renewal and other projects needed to keep the passenger line operating in good repair.

According to Dhadwal, “All projects may feel daunting, but it’s important to consider this is not out of the realm of reasonableness when you look at what other regions of the country are pursuing for their infrastructure.” She noted pushing projects into the future will only increase their cost.

Ridership makes gains

In other business Friday, NICTD marketing director John Parsons reported an encouraging 13.7 percent jump in average weekend ridership last month compared to April 2013. Total April passengers also increased by 2.2 percent, as did on-time performance over April last year.

NICTD general manager Gerald Hanas announced the district is one of 19 winners in Indiana of a certificate of achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting. CFO Keith Casey thanked his staff and said a climate of honesty and integrity is fostered at NICTD.

Four bids were accepted, all the lowest qualified bid of those submitted. Approved were M.J. Electric, LLC of Crown Point at $1,487,900 for traction power rehabilitation for the Wickliffe substation in Porter County; Happs Inc. of Chicago Heights IL at $186,900 for used rail tie plates; L.B. Foster Co. of Pittsburgh PA at $558,600 for new rail; and Railworks Track Services Inc. of Minooka IL at $223,080 for new rail.

The Railworks bid was substantially lower than the other two submitted but NICTD staff said they were satisfied the proposal was responsible and responsive.

Also Friday, NICTD directors approved a resolution that extends until year’s end its employment agreement with Hanas, who earlier had announced his planned retirement.

 

 

Posted 6/2/2014