Rail Project to Shorten SouthBend-Chicago Trip

Published Saturday, February 4, 2017

Forty years ago, St. Joseph, LaPorte, Porter and Lake counties came together to save the flailing South Shore Railroad.

The four counties between Chicago and South Bend are again uniting, this time in an effort to elevate the commuter line to a new level.

The railroad’s operator, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, wants to make improvements it says would shave up to an hour off the South Bend-to-Chicago trip, taking it from 2½ hours to 90 minutes.

The project, called “Double Tracking NWI,” for northwest Indiana, would include building a second parallel track for a 17-mile stretch between Michigan City and Gary, removing the tracks from streets in Michigan City and eliminating a stop there, and elevating the boarding platform in Michigan City.

With a second parallel track between Michigan City and Gary, the passenger train would no longer need to stop and wait for oncoming freight trains to pass through. Currently, opposing trains must meet at scheduled times to pass one another, and any alterations to these “meets,” whether because of mechanical problems, maintenance or other issues, affects all following trains, said John Parsons, vice president of planning and marketing for the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, which owns and operates the South Shore.

It’s been talked about for years but this is the first time the $290 million project seems to have potential support for federal, state and local funding sources. Gov. Eric Holcomb mentioned the project in his recent State of the State speech, and Statehouse Republicans have voiced support for including funding in this year’s biennial budget bill.

Of the $290 million, half would come from the federal government and the other half would be split evenly between the state and equal contributions by the four counties. U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, has been stockpiling the federal authorizations for the project for years, and has finally amassed enough to make state and local matches feasible.

“We’re kind of at the point where we’ve got this perfect storm,” said Mark Catanzarite, St. Joseph County Council member and a member of the 11-member NICTD board of directors since 2003. “Gov. Holcomb and the state legislature are strongly behind us on this.”

Each county would have to pay about $18.2 million for its share of the construction costs. Lake and Porter counties would draw their money from a Regional Development Authority they created 10 years ago, but which St. Joseph County opted not to join.

LaPorte County is looking to obtain its share from property taxes — Michigan City would use tax incremental financing district money, and LaPorte County is considering tapping its major bridge fund, Parsons said.

The biggest question mark lies in St. Joseph County. The Michiana Partnership has obtained $800,000 in state Regional Cities money for preliminary engineering and environmental studies, but has no plan for how to generate the $18.1 million for construction, said Regina Emberton, Michiana Partnership executive director.

Emberton said local officials have discussed pursuing “public-private partnerships,” meaning large employers or institutions, perhaps universities, would be asked to contribute money. But no such private interests have stepped forward, she said.

State Rep. Ryan Dvorak, D-South Bend, said he’s excited.

“I think it’s one of the biggest transportation projects we’ve been able to do in decades,” Dvorak said. “The impact would be huge. The main concern is just making sure St. Joseph County can come up with their piece of the pie because they’re tight on money.”

The commute could be reduced even under 90 minutes if St. Joseph County and South Bend can come up with a way to pay for realigning the tracks as they approach South Bend International Airport. The tracks now make a loop around the east side of the airport, but time could be cut if it took a shorter route west around the airport.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is “fully supportive,” said Brian Pawlowski, the city’s acting executive director of community investment.

“He thinks this could be a game changer for the city,” Pawlowski said.

The longest commutes on the Metra, Chicago’s commuter rail line, are about 90 minutes long. Pawlowski said the administration thinks it’s “very realistic” that people would who work in Chicago would move to South Bend if the commute took 90 minutes or less, especially millennials.

“When you think about the growth we’re seeing downtown, whether residential or commercial, you’re going to have an experience downtown that’s different than before,” Pawlowski said. “We’re creating a similar experience (to urban Chicago) on a smaller scale that’s vastly more affordable.”

Parsons, with NICTD, said South Bend and St. Joseph County could fund their $18.1 million share of construction costs with a bond issue, that, over 30 years, would require about $1.5 million annually in debt payments. The realignment around the airport would cost another estimated $20 million.

Parsons recalled how, in 1977, the four counties came together to form the NICTD to begin subsidizing the losses of the then-private owned South Shore Railroad. In 1990, the organization took over ownership and control.

“This would establish improvements carrying it through the next 100 years,” Parsons said. “It will change the level of service and speed of service, and really turn it into a tool for economic development.”

Source: South Bend Tribune