Former Indiana Congressman Pete Visclosky watched with delight, and a bit of relief, as dignitaries hoisted long-handled hammers to drive gold-painted railroad spikes into a ceremonial section of rail during last month’s official launch of the South Shore Line Double Track rail project in Michigan City.
“It was great because I didn’t have to use a tool,” chuckled Visclosky during an interview with Inside INdiana Business.
Jesting aside, Visclosky says he can’t help but reflect on the decades of “heavy lifting” and effort made by countless people, a myriad of meetings and endless hearings to get federal funding for South Shore rail projects.
“You can’t imagine the reasons people expressed to me since 1988, when I started working on the expansion of the South Shore, why we shouldn’t do it, or we can’t do it,” said Visclosky.
Visclosky retired from Congress in 2021 after serving for 36 years. In January, he was appointed chair of the Gary-Chicago International Airport Authority by Governor Eric Holcomb.
During his last term in Washington, two major South Shore Line projects Visclosky had long advocated for received federal funding.
In January 2021, the FTA announced it would award nearly $173 million plus in federal funding for the $649 million Double Track project. It will add 17 miles of new track, parallel to the existing line, from Michigan City to Gary.
About 40 miles away, construction crews have also begun work on the $949 million West Lake Corridor project that adds a nearly eight-mile extension of the South Shore Line from Hammond to Dyer.
In October 2020, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District and U.S. Federal Transit Administration executed a Full Funding Grant Agreement for $345 million for the project.
Officials say the total $1.5 billion investment between the two projects could attract thousands of new residents as commuter times to and from northwest Indiana to Chicago are improved.
“I tell people that $1.5 billion you reference is a high number. That’s a lot of money. [But] that is the tip of the iceberg here. We are contiguous to one of the greatest city-states in the world,” Visclosky said of Chicago, the third-largest metro economy in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world.
He says project support has not been unanimous. There have been plenty of naysayers.
“Well, you’re just taking people to Chicago to work,” was a common comment Visclosky said he received early on.
Visclosky doesn’t dispute that the commuter trains will take workers to Chicago. But he also points out, those trains will also bring those workers and their paychecks back home to Indiana.
“From the state’s perspective. I think the governor is personally motivated to do the right thing, and that is to invest in the community he knows has a future,” said Visclosky. “But he’s also thinking from the perspective, somebody starts paying sales tax, somebody starts paying property tax, somebody starts paying income tax. That’s great.”
Visclosky says when you examine the 470 miles of mass transit commuter lines spanning out from downtown Chicago, there is a disparity of what stretches into Indiana, and a missed opportunity that the South Shore projects will address.
“Look at the economy of that region. You look at the straight line. It’s like somebody built a wall to Michigan City. We are the last undeveloped suburb in Chicago,” said Visclosky, who acknowledges the South Shore trains run to South Bend.
Despite the unpleasantries often associated with his time in Washington, and the challenges associated with helping to secure federal funding for the South Shore rail projects, Visclosky says, “I’d do it all over again.”
The former 18-term Congressman, now airport executive, says he wants to mirror the multi-faceted, multi-partner approach used for the South Shore projects to grow the airport.
“I came in with a blank sheet of paper. The only goal I had is let us be the best possible airport we can,” said Visclosky. “But to replicate the success we’ve had in northwest Indiana with the development, enhancement and expansion of the South Shore rail. We can partner with the state and the federal government, private investors. We can multiply the dynamics of that money and make something happen.”
LISTEN: In the audio below, Visclosky explains the South Shore Line has momentum and now is not the time to ease up and encourages stakeholders to explore future growth.