- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2016

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - The operators of the South Shore commuter rail in northwest Indiana announced Thursday they have received federal approval to begin doing studies for a proposed $210 million project to add a second track to a 25-mile stretch between Gary and Michigan City.

The Federal Transit Administration’s approval shows that the plan is viable and will improve transportation in the area, said Michael Noland, general manager of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District. Reaching the project development stage puts the agency on a two-year clock to complete the preliminary engineering and environmental studies needed for the project to be rated and become eligible for 50 percent federal funding.

Adding a second track will cut travel time by allowing express trains and avoiding delays caused when trains have to stop on a side track when a train is coming the other way. Noland said the second track will reduce travel time from Michigan City to downtown Chicago from 90 minutes to 67 minutes. Travel time from South Bend to downtown Chicago could be cut from 2 hours, 30 minutes to 1 hour, 45 minutes.

“We can increase performance with the same fleet that we have. We’ve got this expensive rail equipment but we can’t use it to its potential because I can’t send it back upstream in the morning because it’s a one-way street,” he said.

The NICTD estimates it could add 5,000 to 8,000 commuters with the faster travel times.

The NICTD hopes to have the project development work done by August 2017 and receive a project rating by that fall, Noland said. The goal is to begin work in 2019 and be completed by 2020. For that to happen, state lawmakers and local governments must agree to kick in the other $105 million needed.

Indiana Economic Development Corp. President Jim Schellinger has said he will work to help identify sources of funding for the project, although the agency did not select northwest Indiana to receive money from the Regional Cities Initiative that could have been used to help pay for the tracks.

Noland said he hopes to have that local funding in place by summer 2017.

“There’s some heavy lifting yet to be done to identify the funding source for this,” he said.

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