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NICTD backs West Lake expansion in Lake County

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

The Northern Indiana Transportation Commuter District board Friday agreed to endorse the West Lake Commuter Trail Extension and to get behind 1st District U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky’s push for local governments in Lake County to commit funds for federal matches.

NICTD general manager Gerald Hanas said the resolution is to thank Visclosky for “working tirelessly” over the past few months lobbying Lake County municipal officials to commit to the 8-mile extension from Hammond into Dyer.

Local funds are to provide a 50/50 match for federal funds available through the Federal Transit Administration’s New Start program. The total cost of the expansion is estimated at $571 million.

Hanas said this is the “second major step” for the extension. The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority in February said it will be committing $8 million annually toward the project.

Some, but not all, of the Lake County governments have joined the effort.

NICTD believes the West Lake Corridor will bring “economic, social and transportation benefits” and recognizes a “substantial commitment” of local financial resources is required to finance the new rail project from Lake County.

Visclosky has urged action after years of delays. He has said that the extension is essential for keeping the brightest citizens here in Northwest Indiana by providing them transportation to their jobs.

All directors voted in favor of the resolution including Porter County Commissioner John Evans, R-North, and Porter County Councilwoman Sylvia Graham, D-at large.

Before voting, Graham said the only way she supports this is “under the assurance there will be no tax on any other counties to pay for this.” She wishes to study the strategic business plan for the project which will be further discussed at the board’s May meeting.

The board also approved the NICTD’s staff recommendation to hire AECOM, headquartered in Los Angles with a Chicago office, to deliver a draft of the environmental impact study needed prior to West Lake’s Phase 1 construction.

NICTD has set aside $1.9 million of its own funds for the study while the RDA has provided a $1.1 million grant for a total of $3 million. The study is expected to be complete by the end of 2015.

AECOM is the same company hired by the Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority to complete an environmental impact study on its $166 million expansion.

According to a slide presentation, Hanas said with the environmental statement finalized, project development for West Lake can start in 2016. Engineering is projected to begin in 2018 and construction would start two years after. Service could begin as early as 2023, Hanas said.

Purchases

Tabled from last meeting, the board renewed its marketing contract with AC Inc., of Valparaiso, for $135,000. The firm is to expand NICTD’s social media presence and develop a public relations plan, as well as paid-media advertising.

Other bids awarded were $1.1 million for the replacement of the railroad bridge over Hudson Lake in LaPorte County that was struck by a waste removal truck last year. The bid is from JCI Bridges of LaPorte.

For the delivery of railroad catenary wire material, a bid of $309,020 from Wesco Distribution of Hammond was accepted. L.B. Foster of Pittsburg had its bid approved for delivery of welded rail at $157,264. For rubber reseal, a bid of $228,690 from Polycorp Elora of Ontario was approved. For Propulsion-Inverter/Module Replacement, a bid of $879,500 from Toshiba International Corporation of Houston was approved.

Also Friday, the board heard Hanas discuss plans and progress for the South Bend realignment project that would save 10-15 minutes of commute time by trimming 2.7 miles of track.

The board also watched a video highlighting the Michigan City track alignment project and station consolidation that will be posted on the NICTD website.

Cold impacts ridership

The third snowiest winter on record since 1871, and one of the top 5 percent in coldest, proved a challenge to the South Shore Line, NICTD Director of Marketing John Parsons said.

January ridership declined by 9.7 percent over last year and trains were canceled entirely on Jan. 6 because of a major snow storm and sub-zero temperatures.

Parsons said that weekends were especially slow, averaging 2,609 passengers per day, a decline of 23.6 percent compared to last January. “People just avoided outside activity if they could. They stayed home on weekends,” he said.

Despite all the weather obstacles, trains were running on time 77.4 percent of the time in January and 84.9 percent were within ten minutes of their scheduled time.

NICTD Board member and Lake County Commissioner Michael Repay said that considering how bad road conditions and delays were for vehicle traffic, the fact that 90 percent of trains were within 15 minutes of their scheduled time is an impressive feat.

“It’s a testament to the staff and employees of NICTD,” Repay said.

February’s numbers were closer to last year with just a 3.4 percent decline, averaging 11,375 passengers per day. Trains, however, were running less on-time with just 71.6 percent, but 90 percent arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled times.

Parsons said March’s figures may be up compared to last year as temperatures climb. For the week of March 17-23 ridership was 5.4 percent above 2013.

“As the temperatures rise back to normal, we anticipate daily ridership will get back to regular levels by summer,” he said.

Notable events coming up are the opening days for the Chicago White Sox (March 31) and Cubs (April 4). Trains will run their normal weekday schedule on Good Friday, April 18, but will run on holiday schedule during Memorial Day on May 26, Parsons said.

 

Posted 3/31/2014