The Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor plans to invest nearly $20 million over the next four years in a major expansion that will boost its cargo handling capacity.

Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor Director Ian Hirt told a business crowd at a Northwest Indiana Forum luncheon at Avalon Manor in Hobart Thursday that the port was pursuing five big projects in the coming years.

"We're going to be putting in two rail yards," he said. "We just awarded a $1.25 million contract about an hour ago to build a road for the new rail projects. When you say rail, it's a big part of the story. When cargo comes in you've got to get it out of the facility, whether by truck or by rail."

The two new rail yards will be able to handle unit trains, or block trains in which all cars carry the same commodity from the same starting point to the same destination. Hirt said it lowers freight pricing because as many as 7,500 cars are hauling the same commodity, making the transport more efficient.

"Right now we can't now do that because we don't have space to store 7,500 rail cars," Hirt said. "In three years, we'll have two different places at the port where we can store 7,500 cars."

The deepwater port on Lake Michigan that unloads ships from all over the world, including hulking international vessels known as salties that pass from the Atlantic Ocean into the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway, will add about 1,800 more feet of dock.

"That's enough for three ships," he said. "That's more cargo. That's big for us."

The port in Porter County, which receives bulk lake carriers and barges in additional to the international ships, also will build a truck marshaling yard that Hirt described as "a cell phone lot for trucks" in reference to the parking lots at airports where drivers wait to pick up loved ones. The hope is it will relieve congestion when ships are in and reduce emissions.

"We have about 1,300 trucks a day that come into the port," Hirt said. "There's peak times. There's potential for accidents. There's emissions. We want to get those trucks into the cell phone lot and turn off their engines. We're going to build a 3,400-square-foot lounge where truckers can go in and watch TV. Maybe we'll have a convenience store where they can grab something to eat. You can get out of your truck and shut it off."

A $9.85-million federal grant is helping pay for work. The Indianapolis-based Ports of Indiana, a quasi-government agency that's run like a standalone business, is shouldering the rest of the cost.

Northwest Indiana Forum President and Chief Executive Officer Heather Ennis said the expansion would build upon the Region's strong infrastructure.

"Infrastructure is the key and the support to our great Region," she said. "Our infrastructure here in Northwest Indiana is outstanding. We have air, we have rail, we have water, we have intermodal, we have great broadband. We are so blessed here in the Region."
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