INDIANAPOLIS | Northwest Indiana distinguished itself Tuesday from other areas competing for Regional Cities grants by requesting funding for a specific, focused project, instead of presenting a list of likely unattainable dream developments.
Led by Bill Hanna, CEO of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, the 14-member delegation detailed for the Indiana Economic Development Corp. the numerous financial, social and cultural benefits of double-tracking the South Shore Line from Gary to Michigan City.
On Dec. 15, IEDC, the state's commerce department, will choose two regions — out of seven applicants — to receive state funding for their projects.
Currently, when commuter trains traveling in opposite directions meet on that 14.2-mile stretch of track, one must pull to a siding and wait for the other train to pass before continuing.
Double-tracking would speed transit to and from high-wage jobs in Chicago and reduce travel times to 25 minutes from Hammond, 35 minutes from Gary, 50 minutes from Chesterton, 60 minutes from Michigan City and 90 minutes from South Bend.
Hanna explained that would make South Shore service in Northwest Indiana comparable to Metra commuter rail throughout the Illinois suburbs, and help attract younger workers and families to the lower taxes and higher quality-of-life Indiana offers.
In addition, transit-oriented development, called TOD, near revitalized stations on the existing South Shore and soon-to-be-built West Lake extension to Dyer will be a catalyst for the kinds of new retail and housing the millennial generation is looking for, he said.
"It's not rail for rail's sake — this is an economic accelerator," Hanna said.
"What TOD will do is make Miller the hot new place ... and make places like Valparaiso, St. John and Crown Point competitive with places like Naperville and Barrington."
The promise of transit-oriented development already is paying off in Gary's Miller neighborhood where the 18th Street Brewery has gone from 8,000 visitors in 2013 to a projected 100,000-plus this year, with many arriving on the train from Chicago, said owner Drew Fox.
But Fox noted he could do four times as much business with improved transit connections to the third-largest economy in country.
The cost to double-track the South Shore to Michigan City is $114 million, said Mike Noland, general manager of Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District. He predicted ridership would double afterward to at least 25,000 a day.
The RDA requested $42 million from the state's Regional Cities grant program. Under the plan, that money would be used to obtain a federal match and be supplemented by local public and private funds to pay for the double-tracking project, with an estimated completion date of 2019 or 2020.
Members of the IEDC's strategic review committee focused their post-presentation questions to Northwest Indiana representatives on details and timelines of implementation.
That was different from the more general queries about intercity cooperation and organization posed to delegates from other regions pitching myriad small, local projects.
Hanna said since the RDA has more than a decade of regional cooperation already under its belt and a long track record of completed multimillion-dollar projects, there is little question Northwest Indiana can work together.
He is optimistic that will give the region an edge over its six competitors when IEDC awards two Regional Cities grants on Dec. 15.