Two major investments proposed for the South Shore Line in northwest Indiana would dramatically bolster commuter train options for people in the region. The projects would increase ridership between Chicago and northwest Indiana and serve as a catalyst for economic development.
The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD) has proposed two significant improvements: extending train service through the West Lake Corridor, which would create a nine-mile southern extension of the existing South Shore Line to provide new service between Dyer, Ind. and Metra’s Millennium Station in downtown Chicago; and “double-tracking,” or adding a second set of tracks, between Gary, Ind. and Michigan City, Ind., to improve travel times, passenger capacity, service frequency and safety.
Michael Noland, president and general manager of the South Shore Line, says the need for these projects is obvious. He says the effect these projects could have is “profound” and could “double ridership” on these lines.
“Look at a rail map of the Chicago region,” he says. “There’s a reason why West Lake and the double tracking projects are so important. We really have a transit desert here in northwest Indiana.”
The West Lake Corridor, which will run north and south from the proposed Hammond Gateway station, will supplement the existing east-west South Shore Line and would serve Hammond, Munster and Dyer. The $600 million project is eligible for federal funds that would pay roughly half the cost of the project. NICTD says it has a local funding package ready and will apply for federal funds later this year. If that application is successful, the project could be completed by 2022 or 2023, sources say.
The total cost of the double-tracking project is expected to be about $225 million. Local matching funds, which would cover half of the project, have not been identified yet.
These investments would be a response to what many in northwest Indiana have long known: growth in the region must capitalize on Chicago’s global market. To do so, public transit that better connects residents and workers in Illinois and Indiana is needed.
A report released by One Region, which works to improve the quality of life in northwest Indiana, reflects on the South Shore Line’s effect on the region’s economy. Last year, participants at One Region’s Regional Priorities Summit affirmed their support for South Shore expansion, public transit, transit-oriented development and multimodal access, according to the group’s 2016 “Indicators” report.
Meanwhile, station area development is projected to generate an additional $435 million in local property tax revenues for Hammond, Munster, Dyer, East Chicago, Gary, Miller, Ogden Dunes and Portage from 2018 to 2039, according to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority (RDA).
The projects could also boost employment opportunities for many in the region. “Lake County, Ind. has the highest unemployment in the state,” adds Bill Hanna, president & CEO of the RDA. “The proposed South Shore Line improvements are great opportunities to be more connected to Chicago. It would be positive for urban redevelopment and for suburban areas in Indiana that are just as close to the city as DuPage County is in Illinois.”
Major stations for the double-tracking project would be in Gary, Miller Beach, Ogden Dunes and Portage. The project, officials say, would result in up to 25 percent faster travel times between communities in northwest Indiana and Chicago. Trips from Portage to Chicago could be completed in less than an hour, from Gary in less than 45 minutes and from Hammond in less than 30 minutes.
Public input on these projects is especially important, says Leah Konrady, executive director of One Region, which is collaborating with NICTD to get people involved.
“Community outreach is critical to this process,” says Konrady. “It’s very normal for people to have questions about how this is going to impact them, what traffic flow is going to be like and other concerns.”
Konrady and others note that many trends confirm the need for better rail transit in the region –including the potential growth of Millennials, who may be open to commuting but want access to jobs in the Chicago region. Millennials are often defined as people between the ages of 18 and 34 in 2015, and have now passed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest generation, according to the Pew Research Center.
Konrady and others point out that improvements on the South Shore Line are closely tied to future developments in the region. “Locally, I think we’ll see more transit-oriented development, because people like things in close proximity to trains,” she says.
Meanwhile, Noland recalls that “the South Shore Line was almost extinguished in the late 70s; it suffered from decades of disinvestment. Now, we’re looking to the future. It’s time to expand train service.”