South Shore Line passengers disembark from a train. The Federal Transit Administration has advanced the railroad's West Lake Corridor to the engineering phase of its New Starts grant program, the final phase before conclusion of a grant agreement. Staff file photo by Kale Wilk
South Shore Line passengers disembark from a train. The Federal Transit Administration has advanced the railroad's West Lake Corridor to the engineering phase of its New Starts grant program, the final phase before conclusion of a grant agreement. Staff file photo by Kale Wilk
The West Lake Corridor commuter rail project is now one step from a federal grant that would bring the long-planned southward expansion of the South Shore Line to fruition.

A decision by the Federal Transit Administration, in a letter dated Friday, moved the project into the engineering phase of the Capital Investment Grant program. The FTA's decision is being hailed by local leaders as a milestone in the effort to build the eight-mile extension from Hammond to Dyer.

"We are truly excited to announce that the West Lake Corridor project has reached this critical milestone in the FTA's Capital Investment Grant program," Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District President and CEO Michael Noland said in a Monday announcement making the decision public.

"The West Lake project will be transformational," U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky said in the same statement. "This success will help retain and attract people and businesses which will grow our region. I will continue to work with all parties involved to secure the necessary federal funding to support the application."

"Extending rail service will save Hoosiers both time and money — but it's also a critical part of our efforts to strengthen our economy and attract new residents," Gov. Eric Holcomb said. "I'm grateful that local, state and federal leaders have come together to connect Northwest Indiana to the nation's third largest city and beyond, so that our workforce and our businesses will be able to mutually grow."

Advancement to the engineering phase of the grant program positions NICTD to take the project's design to the point of construction, while the partnership of NICTD, the RDA and the Indiana Finance Authority negotiate with the FTA a full-funding grant agreement that would pay 38% of an estimated $933 million project cost.

Final engineering work, and the negotiations to finalize a grant, are expected to begin early next year after NICTD enters into a design-build contract with a firm or partnership of firms.

The design-build contractor will undertake a project to build the new railroad and add stations at the Munster-Dyer town line, near Ridge Road in Munster, in south Hammond and at the junction of West Lake and the South Shore at a Gateway Station near a new Hammond maintenance yard. The city of Hammond has also announced its intention to build a downtown station to serve as a foundation for its revitalization efforts.

The state, local agencies and NICTD are also continuing to pursue a federal grant for their effort to double-track the South Shore between Gary and Michigan City.

"These projects will be game-changers for the region and the state," RDA President and CEO Bill Hanna said. "By increasing our connectivity to Chicago, the third-largest metro area in the country, commuter rail will drive job creation and economic development here in Northwest Indiana and provide a much better opportunity for residents to compete for high-paying jobs in Chicago."
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