All Aboard South Shore Relocation Plan
Last week, the Biden administration announced that it had awarded more than $1.4 billion to projects that improve railway safety and boost capacity, with roughly $1 billion of the money coming from the 2021 infrastructure law.
That 2021 infrastructure bill provides $102 billion in total rail funding, with $36 billion of those funds to be used for federal-state partnerships for intercity passenger rail. The funding window for those funds is the fiscal year 2022, which began October 1, 2021, through the fiscal year 2026, which ends September 30, 2026. This is the largest allocation of federal funds for rail projects in history.
The funding bill has rail advocates excited about what those dollars could ultimately mean to the South Bend Region and improvements to the South Shore Passenger Railroad. In 1992, the South Shore found a temporary home for an eastern terminus on the east side of the South Bend International Airport, moving from its previous location at the Amtrak station.
Some thirty-one years later, as efforts continue to reduce travel time to the nation's third-largest economy in Chicago, the railroad is positioned to find a permanent home. But debate continues as to where that home should be. Some say the airport's west side, while others advocate for downtown South Bend.
Some have positioned it as an either-or scenario, while others, including the railroad and many business leaders, have said both could be options, phase 1 and phase 2. Phase 1 could be the airport location, and Phase 2 could be a future downtown location. The railroad recently updated its strategic plan to include both options. One option, the airport, could advance under this funding bill; the other, downtown, would not be eligible.
A project like this wouldn’t be possible without federal funding. Estimates at the airport have the relocation cost as much as $100 million; downtown could be three times that cost. Studies show a similar number of riders and economic impact at both locations. Travel times would be similar at either location, reducing the trip time to 92-108 minutes.
To seek federal funds in this transportation bill, the applicant must include preliminary engineering to support an EIS/EA with risk, costs, benefits, and impact estimates. That is a 1–2-year project that has been completed for the airport location but not started for downtown. Also, the final submission will require an Environmental Impact Statement plus design, a process that usually takes 7-8 years. That is in process at the airport location, but not downtown, and will be completed in time for a federal funding application.
If the decision was to focus only on downtown, engineers estimate it would be about 10 years before that federal funding application could be made, well outside the current funding window.
Given the amount of uncertainty about the availability of federal funds given the budget battles, now is the time to seize the opportunity if we ever want to make that trip shorter. The legwork that has been done for the new airport location has us ready to capitalize on a funding opportunity that we might not see again.
Additional public discussion about the specific route is ahead. After a spring public meeting, the railroad has committed to another public meeting in the fourth quarter of 2023 for an update. An application for federal funds could then follow.
Critical to that application will be the community getting on board to support the project. A divided community could spell trouble for our application and likely means we miss a once-in-a-generation funding opportunity that will leave our successors debating the same location questions that have been debated for the past thirty-one years.