Hammond station crux issue in South Shore rail expansion


August 20, 2014 – Keith Benman

New maps of the proposed South Shore West Lake extension show five potential station sites along its 8-mile route, including an option for a Hammond gateway station deemed “essential” by Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr.

“The combined gateway station is important,” McDermott said. “The whole extension won’t make sense without it.”

Hammond is one of the few Lake County communities to not yet pledge money to the South Shore extension capital fund, in part over concerns about whether or not the gateway station would be built.

“It’s $27 million they want over 30 years,” McDermott said. “We want to be able to reassure residents its worth $27 million of taxpayer money.”

The proposed gateway station would make it possible for extension users to not only go into Chicago, but they could also transfer to points east such as Gary and South Bend, McDermott said.

Under a second route option under consideration, a traveler from Munster or Dyer would have to go all the way to the Kensington stop on Chicago’s south side to get onto an eastbound South Shore train to Gary or other points in Indiana, McDermott said.

That second route option would turn westward just north of a proposed downtown Hammond station, which is marked on the new maps about one mile south of where the proposed gateway station would go. That route would not join up with the existing South Shore line until just past the Bishop Ford Expressway.

But the gateway station route option also has drawbacks. To get to the gateway station the extension tracks would have to pass over a crowded railroad junction just north of downtown Hammond and remain on a flyover for a distance of up to two miles.

The new maps with locations of proposed South Shore stations were developed as part of an environmental impact study now underway for the extension. They are available at a website NICTD has established for the extension project online at www.nictdwestlake.com/index.html

The environmental impact study will examine the comparative benefits of both routes, said Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District General Manager Gerald Hanas.

The total estimated cost for the South Shore extension is $571 million, according to a Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District strategic business plan summary released earlier this year.

Under a proposed funding plan, local communities in Lake County are being asked to contribute a total of $7.5 million per year to help pay back 30-year bonds on the project. The money would come from funds they receive from the county’s new economic development income tax. Under that plan, Hammond’s support is critical because its contribution of $867,311per year would be second only to the city of Gary’s.

Hammond is contributing $250,000 toward the environmental impact study.

If the gateway station is built, it would also eliminate the need for the downtown Hammond station south of the Hohman Avenue overpass, McDermott said.

However, Hammond would still need a station at 173rd Street, McDermott said. With a shuttle bus system, it could serve Purdue University Calumet.

The South Shore extension would proceed south from downtown Hammond on the abandoned Monon rail corridor. From Munster, it would use the CSX rail line to proceed on to Dyer.

The maps also show a Munster station location south of Fisher Street and a possible Dyer station near the Amtrak platform off Sheffield Avenue.

The South Shore extension is not the only commuter rail extension under consideration in the region.

Proponents of a proposed southeast line for Metra to connect southeast suburban communities to Chicago say Indiana’s plans do not affect their project, which would be just a few miles west of the South Shore extension.

The Lansing-based Southeast Commuter Rail Transit District is undertaking a $632,000 preliminary engineering study of the southeast Metra line.

And officials in Valparaiso also would like a South Shore extension to their city, recently unveiling plans for a transit-oriented development downtown. But Mayor Jon Costas has said that development will be built around the city’s highly successful ChicagoDash bus service to Chicago, which can blaze the way for a South Shore extension in the future.