All aboard for South Shore expansion plans? Winning public support still a goal, RDA official says
Reporter: Jerry Davich / Twitter @jdavich Post-Tribune / March 6, 2018
My personal history with the South Shore railroad goes back nearly a half-century.
I was raised just a couple hundred feet away from the set of tracks that cuts through the Miller section of Gary. I could hear the rumbling South Shore commuter cars from my back porch. I’ve flattened more U.S. coins on those tracks than anyone I know.
Going back even earlier, my great-grandfather was a South Shore train conductor, hopping aboard trains each work day from his Michigan City home. I remember hearing stories about him when I was a kid. His job sounded like a fable from an old novel.
My point is that the South Shore line has always been something more than merely a commuter rail service. It’s been a rolling time capsule from very early in the 20th century. In a wonderful way, it’s an electric-powered, interurban legend that continues to chug along into the 21st century.
I don’t know how many other Northwest Indiana residents share a similar sentimental attitude toward the rail line, operated by the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District since 1989.
I doubt most daily South Shore commuters do. For them, it could be only a crowded ride from their station to Chicago and back. Again and again. Nothing more. I completely understand this attitude.
What I don’t completely understand is the attitude shared by many critics who are adamantly against the rail line’s expansion projects.
More than a decade ago, when I first heard plans for an extension route, dubbed the West Lake Corridor project, I had mixed feelings about it. The kid in me said yippee, more South Shore trains going to more stops in our corner of the state. The adult in me asked how much it would cost taxpayers. And how long it would take to become a reality.
Since then, I’ve heard more negativity than positivity about the project, which may say more about our area’s residents than about progressive plans. Longtime supporters of the project also have heard the unrelenting backlash of complaints through the years.
“That attitude is absolutely real, and it has had an effect on the perception of this project,” said Bill Hanna, president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.
“We haven’t really cracked that code, if you will,” said Hanna, who’s been at the RDA since 2009.
Cracking the code means selling the project to naysayers. This difficult job is also part of Hanna’s role at the RDA, which plays an integral role, financially and otherwise, with this project.
The West Lake plan would expand commuter service with 9 miles of new tracks, plus four stations, in Hammond, Munster and Dyer. The estimated cost is $665 million, without financing costs, which could be up to $115 million.
The RDA also supports another project proposal, Double Track NWI, which would build a second set of tracks between Gary and Michigan City, with new stations, for $321 million, without financing.”
These hefty figures for the two projects were again cited when the Federal Transit Administration last month listed them in its funding recommendations.
The rub, however, is that the FTA is not asking Congress to fund those and other new projects on the Fiscal Year 2019 list. It is only recommending that Congress fund 10 projects that already have full funding grant agreements with the FTA, according to a recent Post-Tribune story. The two local projects are on the FTA radar, but not the actual funding list yet.
It sounds promising but I’ve heard that word several times through the years.
“We have a lot of hope that both rail projects will get done,” Hanna said. “I’ve also heard the word “hope” several times.”
“There are a lot of things that first have to take place in Congress,” Hanna said.
U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, remains fully supportive of the applications to invest in the rail line.
“I am continuing to work diligently to ensure that the Federal Transit Administration and all agencies of the federal government can implement their plans of work as soon as possible, for the current fiscal year,” Visclosky said, referring to the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, 2017.
Supporters’ hopes are now pinned to Oct. 1 of this year, the start of fiscal year 2019, for these projects to finally leave the station.
I’ve been writing about this issue since 2008, when I wrote, “The South Shore extension plan is polarizing region residents on both sides of its proposed tracks through electrified expectations.”
Unfortunately, the same issues of opposition remain a decade later. New jobs versus old arguments. Promises of progress versus a tax-funded boondoggle. Political backing versus public skepticism.
For that column, I took a drive along the South Shore rail route from the state line with Illinois to Michigan City, checking out the retail amenities of each station or stop. They didn’t stack up well against many of the Metra stations and surrounding areas in Illinois.
I wanted to show readers what the expansion project here could possibly look like, with retail businesses hopefully bustling with foot traffic customers from new or upgraded train stations.
“We’re behind the Chicago suburbs, but we’re still in a good position,” Hanna told me recently.
Gov. Eric Holcomb even issued a supportive statement on the FTA’s funding decision last month, calling both projects “transformational for Northwest Indiana.”
Possibly, but have we gained enough political will and public support to finally make this happen?
“These projects are bigger than the political boundaries in our region,” Hanna said. “They offer something tangible against an attitude of resistance.”
Hanna described such resistance as a “disease” that has infected our area. I believe we’ve been infected for decades. It has kept us ill in many ways.
Hanna peppered our chat with polished selling points: Our “connectivity to Chicago” the third largest economy in the country; our “investment in quality of place”; the “leveraging of federal investments”; and the needed “paradigm shift” to get this done.
My dictionary defines paradigm shift as “a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions.”
Unfortunately, this likely explains why these progressive projects are still stuck in the station of resistance.