01 Jun 2017

South Bend, St. Joseph County will commit millions for faster South Shore ride to Chicago


South Shore News

St. Joseph County and South Bend have averaged modest population growth each of the past four years, but they’ve trailed the state of Indiana’s growth rate, according to recently released Census Bureau estimates. City, county and business leaders say they have a prime opportunity to change that by double-tracking part of the South Shore Line, which would eliminate the need for the passenger line to wait for oncoming freight trains, and realigning the South Shore’s approach to South Bend International Airport. They say the work, when finished in 2020, will reduce the South Bend-to-Chicago trip from its current 2.5 hours to 90 minutes, and possibly down to 75 minutes on a special limited-stop trip each weekday morning and evening.

 

The projected $290 million project would be funded 50 percent by the federal government, 25 percent by the state, and 25 percent jointly by Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties. Each county would contribute $18.25 million to double-track about 16 miles of railroad between Gary and Michigan City. The Indiana General Assembly approved $72.5 million in state funding this year and Gov. Eric Holcomb signed it into law. Local officials expect to receive a preliminary indication in October or November, when the Federal Transit Administration “scores” the project, whether it will receive the federal money next year. Without it, the project is dead, said St. Joseph County Commissioner President Andy Kostielney.

But in order to hit their “90 by 2020” target, city and county leaders can’t wait until next year to start putting the pieces in place, said Jeff Rea, South Bend Regional Chamber president. At their meeting Tuesday, St. Joseph County commissioners are slated to consider an agreement requiring the county to contribute its $18.25 million. The city’s redevelopment commission last week approved the agreement, committing it to spend up to $25 million for the new airport approach.

Neither expenditure would require new taxes. The county would obtain its share from two sources: the New Carlisle Tax Incremental Financing district, which is property tax growth captured within a confined area, typically on commercial property; and the County Economic Development Income Tax, Kostielney said. He said he didn’t yet know how the $18.25 million would be broken down between those two sources. The city would tap its River West TIF district for the $25 million, said Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Kostielney said construction can’t start until final federal approval is received next year, but local officials could begin acquiring right-of-way land this fall if the FTA score is favorable.

The South Shore now comes into the city south of the airport, passes the airport, turns north along Bendix Drive and heads back west to the airport. Taking a more direct route to the airport and moving the train station to the airport’s west side is expected to shave 10 minutes off the trip. “I’ve been the mayor for going on six years,” Buttigieg said, “and nobody can explain to me how it is that the train comes in from the west, through 10 grade crossings and 11 curves, and makes its way to the eastern side of the airport. I’m sure there are reasons but we have a chance to straighten that out.”

It was unclear Wednesday how many St. Joseph County homes might be affected by the new route. Kostielney said a route hasn’t yet been chosen, but he said the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District board, on which he serves, has released the engineering work on multiple potential routes to design firm DLZ, which it has hired to study and recommend a route. All that was known Wednesday was that the new route could come off the existing line somewhere between Oak Road and Lexington Avenue, a residential area southwest of the airport, according to a Power Point presentation that NICTD has been giving.

While the project could displace some residents, it has the potential to add many more people, officials said. For example, area employers, such as universities and hospitals, could have an easier time recruiting job candidates if their spouses could commute to Chicago within 90 minutes, Buttigieg said. “We know there are a lot more people who would make that decision to accept that position, or companies would make the decision to grow here in our community if we had that faster train time,” he said.

The mayor said he also foresees an economic boost to the city’s west side. Kostielney thinks the county’s lower cost of living could attract residents who already work in Chicago. Rea agreed. “If you think of west of the airport, a fair amount of that land has been cleared out in recent years,” Rea said. “That could really present some future opportunities in or near the airport that might be attractive for someone to live right by the stop. Buttigieg noted that some people who live in Chicago’s southern, southwestern and northern suburbs, consider themselves part of “Chicagoland” despite driving more than an hour and half to the city’s core “Loop.” He said his former employer, management strategy consulting firm McKinsey & Co., once did a study of “mega cities” that identified Chicago as the only metro area in North America expected to reach that status, defined as 10 million residents, within the next 20 or 30 years.

“Chicagoland,” he said, “arguably has nowhere to grow but eastward.” Buttigieg was asked whether reducing the trip by 10 minutes is worth $25 million. “The answer is in the economic impact,” he said. “We’re talking about a game changer for economic growth. It’s hard to think of something that would have a bigger potential bang for the buck than something like this,” he said. “We recognize it’s not a small commitment, especially for the county with some of the pressure it’s under fiscally, but we also see the return on investment that could make it one of the best bets we’ve ever placed.”

Read article by Jeff Parrott here on SouthBendTribune.com