GARY - It’s been more than 30 years in the making and now officials in northwest Indiana believe the start of construction on the $700 million South Shore line West Lake Corridor project is in sight. A recent positive rating from the Federal Transit Administration puts the eight-mile extension of the rail line from Dyer to Hammond a step closer to up to $440 million in federal funding. Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority Chief Executive Officer Bill Hanna says the project can be transformational for northwest Indiana. "This is an amenity that really connects us to the third-largest economy in Chicago,” said Hanna.  “It turns the South Shore train from a train into a commuter system for job access."

In an interview for this weekend’s edition of Inside INdiana Business with Gerry Dick, Hanna talked about the need for the rail extension and its potential impact on the Indiana economy.

Hanna says the extension will provide Hoosiers with greater access to higher-paying jobs in Chicago. "The fact that there is as many jobs in the (Chicago) Loop as there is in the entire state of Indiana makes this a gateway for Hoosiers, not just in northwest Indiana, but the entire state of Indiana," said Hanna.

He says the project will also positively impact Indiana’s continuing efforts to address population loss by enticing Chicagoland residents in search of better schools and lower taxes to move to Indiana.

The positive ruling from the FTA is viewed a key to making it all happen.

"This is critical, it’s more than just another step, it’s a threshold milestone," said Hanna. "It was the pass-fail for the project and it’s the federal government saying this is a high-value project and it’s worth moving forward."

Hanna says the next step will be negotiating a full funding grant agreement with the FTA in hopes of securing a 50 percent federal match. He believes crews will begin work on the project in the late summer or early fall of 2020, with trains rolling as early as 2023.