By car or rail, projects take on Region’s traffic dilemmas
Mekisha Richardson knows a thing or two about commuting in Northwest Indiana.
On most days over the past three years, she’s traversed the entire northern half of Lake, Porter and La Porte counties to get to work at Purdue University Northwest in Westville.
She used to take the Indiana Toll Road, Interstate 90, from her home in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, a nearly 50-mile trip.
“It was a fairly easy commute because there’s not a lot of people out there in the morning,” Richardson said. “But it was very expensive. Almost $20 a day in tolls. It got to be very expensive.”
Earlier this year, Richardson’s commute got a little better when she moved to Dolton, Illinois, a southern suburb just outside of Chicago. Her commute is about five miles shorter and has no tolls.
Her new home is now closer to Interstate 94, also known as the Borman Expressway (Interstate 80/94) when it runs through Lake County.
“It’s a cheaper commute, but it’s much more congested. So my ride can go anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours,” said Richardson, who is the assistant director of the Leadership Institute at Purdue Northwest.
Richardson is hoping two major road and rail projects could reduce her commute time by making roads easier to travel through — and getting motorists out of their cars and onto a passenger train.
“I’m all for it,” she said.
She’s not alone. More than 200,000 vehicles travel the Borman every day, according to Indiana Department of Transportation data.
Two main projects could make traveling between downtown Chicago and the far eastern regions of Northwest Indiana like Michigan City and South Bend easier. First, the South Shore Line’s double-track project and the recently announced FlexRoad project by the Indiana Department of Transportation.
In December, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced that INDOT received a $127 million grant from the National Infrastructure Project Assistance program. The funding will support more than half of the cost of the I-80/94 FlexRoad project, which aims to make improvements to a 12-mile stretch of the Borman Expressway.
The total cost of the FlexRoad project is $215.5 million. It involves identifying Traffic System Management and Operations strategies designed to improve travel times, increase reliability, enhance safety and reduce carbon emissions along the corridor which runs from I-65 in Gary west to the Illinois 394 interchange in Cook County, Illinois.
According to INDOT Commissioner Mike Smith, the Borman Expressway is the busiest interstate corridor in Indiana.
“Existing traffic volumes are forecast to increase nearly 20 percent by 2040, exacerbating already high levels of congestion and traffic incidents,” Smith said in a written statement. “FlexRoad allows INDOT to optimize traffic flow and improve safety while minimizing impacts to communities.”
Cassy Bajek, public relations director with INDOT’s La Porte district office, further explained that the FlexRoad project will closely examine the Borman Expressway to determine what needs to be improved.
“We need to add capacity without physically adding capacity,” Bajek said. “The area around there is just really congested with homes and businesses. And the roadways are congested with traffic. We’re just looking at what alternatives we can do to improve that area for motorists.”
Bajek said that until an environmental study is completed, INDOT can’t project exactly what strategy will be implemented. But the agency is looking at two possible alternatives.
“We’re looking at dynamic shoulder lanes that will allow people to drive on the shoulders when necessary to get around crashes,” she said. “We do that now when we have a crash and all the lanes are closed, and we often try to let people get around on the shoulders. But this would be something that would be done more purposefully, and we will have more infrastructure for that.”
Bajek said INDOT is also looking at enhancing its traffic management center in Gary and working with more towing companies to get quicker responses to crashes.
Other possible improvements include:
- Improved signage
- Interchange improvements
- Ramp metering, which helps with the flow of traffic coming on to the interstate
- Variable speed limits, which will help start slowing traffic when there’s a tie up
- More message boards to communicate with motorists about congestion issues on the expressway.
“We’re just really trying to increase the reliability of the roadway and also make it safer,” Bajek said.
Getting more people to take the train could lead to reduced congestion on the roadways. The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District — operators of the South Shore Line — has completed 95 percent of the $650 million double-track project between Michigan City and downtown Chicago. Some experts predict the shorter travel times might perhaps be enough to make some people consider taking the train to work or play instead of driving.
This project is considered so important for the future development of Northwest Indiana that even Washington, D.C., leaders are excited.
“We’re helping with that second track on the South Shore that will make such a difference for so many commuters and open up so much value in the land around those places that people are going to count on to get to work,” said Pete Buttigieg, former South Bend mayor and current U.S. Secretary of Transportation, during a visit to Gary in late August.
NICTD President Michael Noland says the double-track project will add 14 trains to its current 39-trains-a-day weekday schedule. The transit agency is also adding 16.9 miles of second track and several bridges. The project is expected to reduce travel times significantly between South Bend/Michigan City and Millennium Station in Chicago. The double-track project and its new schedule are expected to be completed by May, Noland said.
“We’re going to improve our on-time performance. We’re also going to improve or actually reduce the time from Northwest Indiana to and from Chicago,” Noland said.
He pointed to Michigan City as an example. He said the fastest train now is about an hour and half ride to Chicago.
“We’re going to be able to bring that down to 67 minutes,” he said. “So we’re going to reduce time to and from Chicago, and that’s a huge benefit from a transit standpoint.”
Although it will take time, Noland said the double-track project is expected to take cars off the highway.
Commuting patterns, Noland said, are also changing in a post-pandemic world. Fewer people are traveling every day to downtown Chicago, which impacts ridership and vehicle traveling. Hybrid work schedules — some days in the office — and some days working from home — are still being worked out.
“We are very excited about the fact that when we open up these new service opportunities, we’re going to capture a whole new sector of ridership when we make it really convenient and when we reduce the time to and from Chicago,” Noland said. “We’re putting a lot of money into our railroad cars to make them really convenient and comfortable for the riders. We’re rehabbing 26 additional double-deckers that we’ll have on the main line.”
That main line, Noland said, will be renamed the Lake Shore Corridor in homage to the original name of the South Shore Line, which was the Chicago, Lake Shore, South Bend Railroad.
Noland said reducing congestion also means improved safety.
“People will say, ‘Oh, I never ride the train.’ Well, if we get cars off the highway, your driving experience is just going to be made all the more better if you have fewer vehicles on the road,” Noland said. “And, you’re 18 times safer on a train than you are driving a car on the highway. We have a huge safety component in what we’re doing in providing our level of service.”
The West Lake Corridor Project will see the South Shore Commuter Train travel inland from Hammond south to Dyer and Munster with new tracks, bridges and train stations.
The route will be renamed Monon in tribute to the old Monon Railroad, which once ran from Chicago to Indianapolis to Louisville from 1897 to 1971. It was once owned by CSX Transportation.
NICTD purchased a 6-mile stretch of the Monon Railroad from CSX because the company planned to abandon it anyway, Noland said.
The first phase of the Monon Corridor is expected to be completed by May 2025. The second phase, extending the route south to St. John, Cedar Lake and Lowell, will begin sometime after that.
Future train ridership and vehicle commuting will also be impacted by an unknown factor: how many people will move into or near the communities of downtown Hammond, Gary, Munster, Dyer and Michigan City once the double-track and the $950 million West Lake Corridor projects are completed?
Helping to drive investment in these areas is the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.
With help from the Indiana General Assembly, the RDA created 10 Transit Development Districts, including Hammond, Munster, Gary and Michigan City.
“The idea here is to incentivize development near the train stations. Michigan City, for example, is looking at the development of a high-rise apartment building but with ground-floor retail space, parking garage,” said David Wellman, communications manager for the RDA.
With improvements to local highways combined with the South Shore Line’s double-track and West Lake Corridor projects, Wellman said that could have a positive impact on reducing congestion on local expressways.
“The double-track is going to create a real viable option if you’re looking to get in and out of the city (of Chicago),” Wellman said. “This is going to represent a significant improvement.”
On the flipside, Wellman said the projects could also increase what is called “reverse commuting” to get people to use the South Shore Line to get to and from jobs within Northwest Indiana.
“You may have office and professional space located within walking distance of the stations,” Wellman said. “And so people could come from other places around Northwest Indiana or from Chicago. I know some of our communities are very interested in those kinds of employment opportunities around the stations.”
Excitement builds in Gary
Gary’s new mayor is one person who is equally excited about the opportunities presented by the double-track projects and new train stations.
Gary Mayor Eddie Melton, a former Indiana state senator who took office Jan. 1, said the creation of a new metro station for downtown Gary and the city partnering with private developers, and NICTD and the Gary Public Transportation District, will be important to move the city forward.
Gary also has an added advantage of being home to the Gary/Chicago International Airport. The airport announced in December that it paid $1.8 million for the Griffith-Merrillville general aviation airport. That could allow some cargo services to be shifted to Griffith-Merrillville, perhaps opening the future return of passenger service to Gary/Chicago.
Melton said he’s not concerned that faster train service to Chicago will pull the workforce away from Gary.
“As we grow as a community and grow as an economy, we’re going to be intentional on bringing more businesses in that (are) going to employ our citizens,” he said.
But Gary also will have to make sure to maximize the benefits of its location close to downtown Chicago — “the nation’s third largest economy,” he said.
“We’re closer than some Illinois suburban communities to downtown (Chicago),” Melton said. “Then you add into the mix the Gary/Chicago International Airport — it’s a no-brainer in terms of the combination of transportation assets that we have.”
Richardson said she hopes these projects will make getting to and from work faster and a lot easier on her wallet.
“It would make my life a lot simpler. Sometimes I can work remotely, but when we’re in the heart of program season, there’s no way. I have to go in,” Richardson said. “There’s some weeks where I have to go in five days a week, and that’s brutal.”
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