Northwest Indiana planners keep future in mind when maintaining, improving Region’s infrastructure
Northwest Indiana certainly lives up to the state’s motto: “The Crossroads of America.”
The Region is served by four U.S. interstates, three Class-1 freight railroads, the Gary/Chicago International Airport, an iconic commuter rail line, and the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor, which provides barge access to more than 20 states and the Gulf of Mexico. With its fortunate proximity to Chicago, Northwest Indiana’s multiple modes of transportation move massive amounts of products and people, but they also transport something even more valuable: promise — with endless miles of it.
“As part of our strategic plan, the Indiana Department of Transportation is focusing more on innovation than it ever has in the past,” said Adam Parkhouse, media relations director for INDOT's Northwest District, based in La Porte. “This year alone, INDOT is having a record-setting year for construction throughout the state, with more than 1,100 projects representing a $2 billion investment in infrastructure.”
Many of those projects are happening here in INDOT’s Northwest District, he said.
Under Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb's Next Level Roads plan, more than $10 billion will be spent on construction and maintenance in the next five years, with $60 billion spent in the next 20 years. INDOT’s Northwest District is responsible for 5,600 lane miles of roadway, 824 bridges, 618 traffic signals and more than 58,000 road signs.
“As part of our five-year plan, INDOT is focused on preservation and taking care of what we have,” Parkhouse said. “Reliability and predictability of a sound, safe infrastructure will have benefits for motorists and businesses alike.”
In late 2018, the state awarded more than $120 million in state matching funds as part of INDOT’s Local Trax program for rail-crossing safety improvements. Many of the projects receiving funds were in Northwest Indiana.
“They can have a transformative impact on local street networks,” Parkhouse said. “INDOT is particularly interested in being on the forefront with the development of autonomous vehicles, designing roadways and roadway features with the inevitability of autonomous vehicles and trucks in mind.”
In the railway industry, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District is in the early stages of a major expansion project that will make the Chicago market more accessible for hundreds of thousands of Region residents. The agency’s double-track project features installation of a second mainline track from Gary to Michigan City, including 17 miles of new track, four new bridges, and station and parking improvements at five South Shore Line stations.
“The double-track project will transform the physical and economic landscape of the Northwest Indiana Region and catalyze growth in communities served by the South Shore Line,” said Michael Noland, NICTD president and CEO. “This project is uniquely positioned to move forward with federal support, because our exemplary partnership model includes local and state investment.”
NICTD and its partners continue working with state and federal partners to advance the second major commuter rail expansion project in the Region — the West Lake Corridor project — an 8-mile extension from Hammond to Dyer.
At its August meeting, Noland told the board that NICTD is expecting notice any day from the Federal Transit Administration regarding anticipated funding from the Capital Investments Grants Program for the Double Track Northwest Indiana project. It’s been a priority for the governor, the Indiana Finance Authority, and the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.
“These projects will be game-changers for the Region and the state,” said Bill Hanna, president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana RDA. “By increasing our connectivity to Chicago, the third-largest metro area in the country, commuter rail will drive job creation and economic development in Northwest Indiana.”
Noland said the West Lake project received a medium-high rating from the Federal Transportation Administration in March. NICTD submitted requests to the FTA seeking a project rating for the double-tracking project, as well as permission to move forward on the engineering phase this fall.
Each project must receive a rating of medium or higher to keep it moving along in the funding process, according to NICTD.
Noland said in early September that NICTD expected a decision soon on its request to enter the engineering phase for West Lake. According to the most recent update of the NWI RDA’s Comprehensive Strategic Plan, the double-track and West Lake Corridor projects could attract about $2.3 billion in private investment to Northwest Indiana, create more than 6,000 new jobs, and provide $3 billion in economic impact by 2048.
“We are also helping to fund road improvements at Buffington Harbor, designed to improve industrial access,” RDA spokesman David Wellman said. “And the RDA is a funding partner on the 45th Street grade-separation project in Munster.”
Construction most likely ahead
According to data and projections from the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, the Region’s infrastructure offers the right comprehensive mix of transportation modes to keep moving people and goods where they need to go. This network employs numerous modes of transportation to accommodate travel needs, such as 5,800 linear miles of roadways, equaling more than 13,000 total lane miles.
The projected growth in daily vehicle miles from 2017 through 2050 is 7%, and NIRPC is just starting to work with stakeholders to update the Congestion Management Process for NWI. This approach will prioritize strategies that reduce travel demand and increase capacity of the existing transportation system. The improvements emerging from the updated CMP will help accommodate this expected increase in traffic.
Also, Indiana ranks ninth in the nation for best tax environment, based on the 2018 State Business Tax Climate Index by Tax Foundation, an independent tax policy nonprofit.
These factors provide an incentive for innovative business and economic growth. The Region has an opportunity to expand and diversify its workforce and economic sectors to meet the demands of these emerging markets.
And its contiguity to the powerhouse market of Chicago, along with a strong international economic center, offers vast potential, according to the foundation.
State transportation officials estimate that freight volumes on major NWI roads will climb from 13,000 to 44,000 trucks a day. Factor into this scenario an increased reliance on automobiles, meaning more congestion and more delays for the industries that support the regional economy.
“The Region’s infrastructure and mobility are in need of renewal,” said Eman Ibrahim, NIRPC’s planning manager. “With a separation and distance between living, working and playing destinations, Northwest Indiana’s infrastructure has seen extensive wear and tear.”
Other factors that need addressing, according to NIRPC:
- Development away from main centers has diverted infrastructure investment to new, previously undeveloped areas.
- Reducing congestion by developing a regional railroad-crossing improvement plan with a focus on highway-rail grade separations.
- Improving transportation network connectivity to mitigate congestion on major arterials and interstates.
- Diversifying the workforce to meet the future logistics job demand; increasing and prioritizing funding to improve urban freight movement; and continue to raise the Region’s profile as a prosperous place to do business.
Transporting plans into progress
To accomplish these objectives, multiple projects are in the works or planning stages:
- A channelization improvement project on westbound Interstate 80/94 at the Interstate 65 interchange to be completed by the end of this year. Other roadway improvements include the Cline Avenue Bridge Project, expected to open to traffic by 2020; the 45th Street grade-separation and realignment project in Munster, expected to be open to traffic by 2025; the Willowcreek Road extension in Portage from County Road 700 North to State Road 130, expected to open to traffic by 2030; and various INDOT Next Level Roads projects to improve pavement and bridge quality on the Region's major highways.
- Forming a working group to designate Critical Urban Freight Corridors and Critical Rural Freight Corridors, a designation that would allow roads and highways that meet certain criteria to be eligible for additional funding not tapped by Northwest Indiana, as well as analyzing freight data to identify truck freight bottlenecks.
- Investigate the impacts of e-commerce on NWI and offer recommendations on how best to deal with the rapidly changing retail landscape on land uses and transportation network — in addition to performing travel demand studies around existing and future e-commerce facilities.
NIRPC, which exemplifies its “planning” title, and its many partners have a lengthy to-do list while also forecasting demand for upcoming land development and accommodating future e-commerce needs. Planners must develop a set of recommendations to local municipalities on how to best anticipate e-commerce impacts, mitigate their effects and harness their opportunities.
Officials say it also is necessary to create a parcel-based map of current and potential business locations along major NWI corridors to help identify economic centers and prioritize future transportation improvements.
“After all, we can only work with the infrastructure we’ve got,” Ibrahim said. “We need to get our goods from point A to point B cheaply and reliably, without a sacrifice to either (and) making efficiencies here can be the difference between us being competitive or not.”
These efficiencies include connecting all modes of transportation infrastructure through continuous investments and changing the retail environment to offer plenty of opportunity. Keep in mind that urban freight delivery growth is expected to expand 40% by 2050, and smart tech-savvy strategies will be needed to mitigate related congestion issues.
If all goes as planned, developers should take advantage of e-commerce growth by establishing more distribution centers and warehouses.
Community leaders and planners should rezone and re-purpose larger, vacant retail buildings into other uses. Job placement centers and economic developers should prepare for these changes by training workers for positions in information technology, logistics and other trending technical positions.
“In the future, as home shopping grows, malls and other shopping centers will likely need to be refurbished into logistics hubs, supply spaces, or removed altogether and the land redeveloped for other uses,” Ibrahim said.
‘Golden age’ of happy trails
Northwest Indiana has experienced another kind of transportation growth too. The construction of off-road, multi-use trails has exploded during the last 30 years — a “golden age” of trail development spearheaded by NIRPC. A clear picture of this growth is demonstrated in the number of miles built during this period. In 1990, only 13 miles were in use, with the Calumet Trail in Porter County accounting for nine of those miles. By 2019, about 170 miles of regional trails are open for public use.
“These routes have primarily taken advantage of abandoned railroad corridors, but several miles exist within utility corridors and along waterways,” said Mitch Barloga, NIRPC’s active transportation manager. “Many more miles of trail have been funded and planned for development within the next five to 10 years.”
Under his efforts, the agency has directed more than $50 million in federal funding for local trail initiatives. These funds are allocated according to plans that prioritize potential corridors for future trails, which in turn ensures continued growth through regional cooperation.
In other words, build it and they will bike, run, walk, skate and simply enjoy its amenities.
“The South Shore is home to hundreds of miles of biking and hiking trails, as well as water trails for paddlers,” said Erika Dahl, director of communications for the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority. “They range in difficulty with a mix of paved, unpaved and dirt trails that will take cyclists through downtowns, along rivers, through forests as well as through a national park.”
“Our Region is also part of the American Discovery Trail … (which is) nationally recognized,” she added.
Marty Benson, assistant director in the division of communications for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, points to grant money making all this happen.
“Next Level Trails will invest $90 million — the largest infusion of state trail funding in Indiana history — toward the development of regionally and locally significant trails throughout Indiana,” Benson said. “Three separate first-round NLT awards went to Hebron and Schererville in Lake County and to Burns Harbor in Porter County, (and) a fourth award went to the Erie Trail in Starke County.”
These “nonmotorized superhighways” offer safe and accessible linkages for walkers, runners and bicyclists. Although most use the trails for recreation, a growing number are discovering the benefits of commuting to work or running errands by trail, only enhancing our transportation network, Barloga noted.
“A number of other trails are also developing, including the Pennsy Greenway from Lansing to Crown Point, the C&O Greenway from Griffith to Merrillville, the Veterans Memorial Trail from Crown Point to Hebron, and the Dunes Kankakee Trail from the Dunes State Park to Valparaiso and parts south,” he said. “There are a number of emerging local systems, all helping to demonstrate a solid passion for active transportation connections in Northwest Indiana.”