U.S. transportation head mum on $290 million South Shore double-track project odds


South Bend, IN (August 29, 2017) — After two hours of listening behind closed doors to local leaders’ pitch for federal money to double-track the South Shore Line, the nation’s top transportation official declined to talk specifically about the project publicly Tuesday.

“That is an application that is in progress and I will not talk more about it,” U.S. Transporation Secretary Elaine Chao told reporters after emerging from the meeting at the South Bend International Airport. “But suffice it to say, the bipartisan nature and the public-private partnership aspects of any project would be ones that are important to us. Once again, Indiana appears to be leading the way.”

Standing behind her at the podium were Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Jimtown and Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville.

Chao said her decision to bring several high-level staff members with her on the visit indicates its importance.

The project, which would reduce from two and half hours to 90 minutes the rail commute from South Bend to Chicago, would cost an estimated $290 million and can’t happen without the federal money.

Chao is married to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. A reporter asked Young, who coordinated the event, what her visit might mean for the project’s funding odds.

“I think it’s essential,” Young said. “One of the things that’s looked at, at the federal level, is how much local support, state-level support you have as well, and the composition of that support. Support has been nonpartisan as well, going back a number of years.”

Young said he thought Chao Tuesday had obtained “some more insight” into how “forward-leaning” the state has been in transportation funding.

“The intensity, the enthusiasm that surrounds the South Shore project … is something that I think you just cannot capture unless you have the opportunity to visit with the various stakeholders,” he said.

President Donald Trump’s administration in March proposed cutting funding for any new projects by the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Program for next year. But Young said the program could be “very important” for the project.

Visclosky said Congress so far has been moving in the opposite direction of Trump’s proposal as it crafts a budget for fiscal 2018, which begins Oct. 1. A House committee has passed a bill calling for a $500 million increase from the administration’s proposal, while a Senate committee-passed bill contains a $900 million increase, Visclosky said.

“My colleagues in a bipartisan fashion on both committees recognize the value of investing in these programs to create jobs and grow economies in all 50 states of the nation,” Visclosky said.

Earlier Tuesday, Chao also joined Holcomb at a ribbon cutting ceremony celebrating completion of “80/90 Push,” a $200 million upgrade of the Indiana Toll Road.

The project resurfaced 73 miles, rebuilt or repaired 53 bridges and included installation of fiber-optic communication lines that will enable an “intelligent transportation system,” featuring 23 cameras that will feed Toll Road officials information on traffic accidents and vehicle breakdowns, said Rick Fedder, the Toll Road’s chief operating officer.

The for-profit Indiana Toll Road Concession Co., which has been leasing the Toll Road from the state since 2005, paid for the project with toll revenue and contracted the work to Goshen-based Rieth-Riley Construction Co., which built the road in 1954. The project came in under budget and was completed four months ahead of schedule, Fedder said.

Chao praised the public-private partnership, as she did during a visit Monday to Hyattsville, Md. at a groundbreaking ceremony for a 16-mile light rail project.

“Thanks to all these improvements, travelers will find I-80/90 faster, smoother, safer and future-ready, as well as requiring less maintenance,” Chao said at the 11:30 a.m. event held in the commuter parking lot near the Toll Road’s Mishawaka entrance and exit. The Toll Road closed the entrance and exit during the event.

Source: South Bend Tribune